Monday 18 July 2011

Read in 2011 - 17: The Little Stranger

So far, every time I have written one of my "Read in 2011" posts, I have done so the next morning after having finished each book the previous night, and, so to speak, slept on it.
This time, though, I have only read the last page a few minutes ago, and the impression the story has left on my mind is still fresh, and very vivid.
Since "The Little Stranger" by Sarah Waters is almost a ghost story, it seems fitting to say that I am still under its spell.
But first of all, I want to use this space to say thank you once again to the friend who, earlier this year, gave me three boxes full of books for me to play with - i.e. to decide which ones I wanted to keep, sell or throw away. Several of my "Read in 2011" entries here are about the treasures found in those three boxes, and there are some more lined up on the "To Be Read" shelf of my desk.

Why am I saying "The Little Stranger" is almost a ghost story? Because it is - and it is not.
It is, because the events that slowly lead up to a whole family being destroyed, and leaving the lives of at least two other people changed forever, are inexplicable - unless one believes some supernatural force to be at their root.
It is not, because only at the end of the first third of the story, at around page 160 of 500, the inexplicable events start being told, and not even then does the book dwell on that aspect unnecessarily.

Until then, what we find is a family who have been living in a large Warwickshire mansion for over 200 years, struggling to adapt to the drastic changes in their lives brought about by two world wars. And while there still seemed to be a lot of the gentry life going on after the first war, now, shortly after the second one, the old era is definitely over, and the former glory impossible to restore.
Money - or, rather, the lack of it - is a big issue, and because the Ayres family (the widowed mother and her two grown-up children, Roderick and Caroline) still desperately cling to their old ways, their circumstances and some of their rituals seem almost grotesque: lack of funds forces them to restrict their living quarters to just a few rooms, and even those can not be adequately lit and heated; fuel, food and clothes are still rationed in those post-war years, and yet they insist on their parlour maid being dressed in frilly cap and apron and serve tea all formally, even though the slices of the meagre tea cake are cut awfully thin.

The house, Hundreds Hall, is crumbling all round them, and apparently nothing can be done to prevent it; everything of value and most of the land has already been sold. And yet, both the house and its inhabitants exude a fascination and charme upon Dr. Faraday, the country doctor, who quite by coincidence happens to become involved with the family.
Being from the area, Dr. Faraday (who is also the narrator of this excellently written story) remembers having been to the house on "Empire Day" as a boy, and it is his memory of that day which starts off the book.
That first scene alone is so well written and really struck a chord in me, that there was no way I could have put the book aside to read something else instead. Let me show you what I mean by quoting directly from it:

I first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old. It was the summer after the war (meaning the first world war), and the Ayreses still had most of their money then, were still big people in the district. The event was an Empire Day fĂȘte: I stood with a line of other village children making a Boy Scout salute while Mrs Ayres and the Colonel went past us, handing out commemorative medals; afterwards we sat to tea with our parents at long tables on what I suppose was the south lawn. Mrs Ayres would have been twenty-four or -five, her husband a few years older; their little girl, Susan, would have been about six. They must have made a very handsome family, but my memory of them is vague. I recall most vividly the house itself, which struck me as an absolute mansion. I remember its lovely ageing details: the worn red brick, the cockled window glass, the weathered sandstone edgings. They made it look blurred and sightly uncertain - like an ice, I thought, just beginning to melt in the sun.

Can't you just picture it? I certainly can, and I found myself sharing Dr. Faraday's fascination with and, after a while, affection for the house and the family, up to the point that, during the working hours of my day, I felt I was looking forward to the evening when I would be able to retreat to my bed with the book, returning to Hundreds Hall.

As the story progresses, tragic events occur and leave the family severely affected at first, and completely destroyed in the end. After what looks like a hopeful silver lining on the horizon comes to nothing, there is a sad ending - with the supernatural force maybe or maybe not to blame.
See, this is what I like about this story: you can read it as a ghost story, if you are so inclined. But you can just as well read it as a tale of a family who were clinging to an anachronistic way of life, and who had circumstances and a rapidly changing society working against them, without any actual personal fault or aggression being directed against them.

From the length alone of my review I guess you can tell how much I enjoyed the story, even though I would have wished for a gentler ending. There is an interview with the author about this book here, and a short BBC newsnight video interview with Sarah Waters here.

By the way, I have not found any typesetting or editing errors worth mentioning in the whole book - a relief and true pleasure after having come across several rather badly edited and typeset books recently.


  1. Been wanting to read this for a while... I loved the production of "Tipping the Velvet" though I haven't yet read any of her work. I imagine it to be amazing.

  2. Sonia, I have read on the author's website about "Tipping the Velvet" but from what I gather, "The Little Stranger" is very different to that. It will be interesting to know how you like this one, if/when you get round to reading it.