What I’m Reading: The Little Stranger

Judging by my posts, it might appear that for the last month or so I’ve read nothing but poetry, and there is a certain amount of truth to this. I certainly spent National Poetry Month reading far more poetry than usual, and, in the middle of April, I did try to go for a while without reading any fiction, in the hopes that I’d finish a few non-fiction books I was in the middle of, and that I’d avoid purchasing more books to pack or ship home to the US. My “no-fiction” kick was an absolute disaster: within days I felt remarkably and undeniably close to misery, a douleur which only abated once I’d headed to the English-language section of the nearest FNAC and purchased several books, including King Lear. When reading King Lear cheers you up, you know something was really, really wrong. So no more breaks from fiction for me: I’m addicted, and I accept it (in fact, I embrace it, after the fashion of this “Bookaholic” post from one of my favorite literary blogs, Tales from the Reading Room).

Last week I read The Little Stranger by British author Sarah Waters. The novel was short-listed for last year’s Man Booker Prize* (it lost to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall) and Waters wrote The Night Watch, a book I read last summer which absolutely floored me with the beauty of its prose and the truth of its characters. The Night Watch is set in London, during the Blitz, while The Little Stranger is set in rural post-WWII England. The book is narrated by a doctor from Warwickshire, who reveals, in his ponderously rational, and helplessly self-conscious way, his relationship with a once grand, but now deteriorating neighborhood estate called Hundreds Hall and its inhabitants, the Ayres family.

Waters choice to narrate the novel through the voice of Doctor Farraday places, at the center of this book about deterioration and decay, a man who has effaced himself. Farraday comes from a lower class family—his mother worked as a nursery made at Hundreds Hall—and his parents sacrificed everything to put him through medical school. But success for him required that he erase his accent, his manners, and in large part his memories, or at least his attachments to them. He lives a lonely life—an aging bachelor whose hard-won status within his profession, like everything else following the war, is changing.

To me, this novel is in part about being cheated. Doctor Farraday has given up his inherited identity and worked so hard all for some dream of social ascension which is, unfortunately, inextricably linked to the crumbling manner house, and the people within it. Hundreds Hall is a remnant of an England that no longer exists, and the house itself appears as destined for complete ruin as Roderick, its young squire, who returned from the war scarred and crippled to an estate the demands the last of his youth and energy. Through Roderick and through the medical discourse Waters is able to introduce into the narrative quite naturally through Doctor Farraday and his colleagues, The Little Stranger seems to play a bit upon the accepted narrative of shell shock and PTSD, suggesting that the horrors of war may not be just “of war,” but rather horrors, more generally. Horrors of humanity. The divide between rationality and irrationality and between sanity and insanity is  maintained—defensively and at great cost—by Farraday, even as the world around him becomes murkier and murkier and he himself becomes more and more entrenched in the spooky and unnatural happenings at Hundreds Hall.

Sarah Waters is a really gifted writer, and she brings alive historical settings in a way that I imagine is both indicative of her talent and of an immense amount of research. This book is long, and though some sections seemed to drag on a little slowly, I read the novel quickly and easily. Some of Waters’ descriptions are stunning and unsettling in their precision, and I think in its best moments this book manages to be both forceful and subtle at the same time, which is not an easy feat.

I recently saw a production of Macbeth at the Globe, and being a huge geek I attended an introductory lecture by a Cambridge professor beforehand. She quoted several people (including I think Charles Lamb and Oscar Wilde) who have said that it is nearly impossible to stage Macbeth in a way that does the suspenseful intensity of the text justice, because people no longer believe in witches. In the age of Hollywood mega-thrillers, with loads of violence and the inevitable (and therefore often predictable) “final twist,” something similar, I suppose, could be said of ghosts and ghost stories. But Waters’ haunting of Hundreds Hall in The Little Stranger becomes all the more sinister in that it isn’t overdone. The suggestions of something malevolent and supernatural are clear, but they are only suggestions—dark possibilities so hauntingly human as to out—terrifying even the most vindictive of phantom forces. As Water’s subtly underscores with The Little Stranger‘s final image, our ghosts are all the more haunting in their ambiguity, especially when we recognize in them ghastly but genuine reflections of ourselves.

*The Man Booker Prize is awarded each year to the best novel–as voted upon by a panel of judges–written by a writer who is a citizen of the British Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland.

If you liked The Little Stranger: I really enjoyed Waters’ novel The Night Watch, which is set in the wartime London of the 1940s. For something more in the “ghostly” vein, try Shirley Jackson or Edgar Allen Poe, or of course Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

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