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The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Well here it is, my last book review of 2009. Did you know I've been reviewing books for the Blogulator for over a year now? Spooky. You know what else is spooky? This book. Great transition, high five, me!

Sarah Waters is a literary writer who built her reputation on a trilogy of Victorian novels (Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, and Fingersmith), lauded for their historical accuracy and period authenticity--two very different things, in my opinion. But I didn't know that when I started The Little Stranger; I confess, the only Sarah Waters book I'd even heard of was Fingersmith, and I've never read it, or considered reading it. I first came across The Little Stranger in the New York Times Notable Books of 2009 list, and it sounded so incredibly good, like The Turn of the Screw meets Atonement, that I immediately ordered it online without a second thought and brought it with me to read over Christmas.

Besides being something of a thick book (463 pgs, not really long, per se, but long-ish), The Little Stranger is a slow-moving thing. That's not a criticism, either; reading it is like eating a many coursed rich meal. You need to take the opportunity to savor everything, and it will take a considerable amount of time. With this novel, Waters has recreated post-WWII England; the voice and detail is pitch-perfect, as far as I would ever know, to the period. The descriptions are so lush, the depth of narration so profound, that it really takes some effort to absorb and appreciate it all.

The Little Stranger is about a family, more specifically about their house. Hundreds Hall is one of those English country estates that for centuries was formidable, whose residents commanded respect as landed gentry. But since the death of the squire and with the ravages of war, Hundreds has fallen into disrepair and its owners, the Ayers family, into debt and despondence. The narrator of the story, Dr. Faraday, whose mother used to serve in the house long ago when it was still buoyed by the Ayers' fortune and pre-war lifestyle, comes to know the Ayerses by simple chance--something that would not, of course, ever have happened in the old days. He becomes a friend of the family, and a witness to their sudden misfortunes.

Roderick, the youngest Ayers but, as the only son, Hundreds' master, is twenty-three and returned from the war with an injured leg and a scarred face. He comes to confide in Dr. Faraday his suspicions that something dark and disturbing is living in Hundreds Hall, torturing him and threatening his family. Faraday, a doctor of course, believes that Roderick is cracking under the strain of running a quickly disintegrating estate coupled with post-traumatic stress disorder, and eventually helps the Ayerses move him to an asylum. When Mrs. Ayers and her daughter, Caroline, with whom Faraday has fallen in love and hopes to marry, begin to believe his ravings and experience ghostly occurrences in the house as well, Faraday continues on with his practical GP sensibility and, I believe, is instrumental in bringing the whole family to its knees.

I always wonder, when reading these types of stories, how I would react to a friend of mine telling me that their house is haunted. I firmly believe that if Faraday had listened to and taken seriously the things that the Ayerses said they were experiencing at Hundreds, had removed them from the house and installed them somewhere safe, everything would've turned out differently. But the house works its magic on Faraday as well; when Caroline attempts to leave, he is appalled that she would abandon Hundreds, and she is disgusted with his obsession with it. Reading The Little Stranger, I grew infuriated with Faraday, going so far as to say out loud, "Oh my God, will you just believe her, you asshole?" But then again, who would believe such a thing? Faraday's not wrong to suspect that the whole family has gone mad, but he turns away from the evidence for too long, which is his downfall. If I were Caroline, I would've strangled him the first time he pronounced me "tired" and "anxious" as a way of avoiding the things I obviously meant and believed in. Douche.

Otherwise, I, like the Ayers family, was very fond of Faraday. I felt sorry for him, even; the single-minded pursuit of his education, he believes, hastened his parents' death, and he has yet to make a real contribution to the medical field. He has few real friends and no family; the Ayerses become that for him, and Hundreds becomes his home--I can't imagine how hard it would be to give all of that up, especially if you're as insecure and afraid as he is. His fears of irrelevance plug in so nicely to the Ayerses actual irrelevance that he begins to feel as though he's one of them, despite the fact that he demonstrably is not. After everything that happens, Hundreds won't even haunt Faraday. It leaves him alone. He's not part of it, though he longs to be. The end of the novel finds Faraday wandering the dark, empty corridors of the house, pathetically begging whatever it is that terrorized the family to show itself, and receiving no reply.

The Little Stranger is a masterful novel. Full of suspense and palpable darkness, everything is so beautifully and horrifically rendered, from the house to the narrator to the time period to the Ayers family themselves, who are almost as charming and lovable as the Redesdale clan (from the Nancy Mitford novels). You'd be hard pressed to find a richer, more entertaining novel this year.

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  1. Blogger qualler | 12:59 PM |  

    Woo happy blogging anniversary OHD!! This book looks interesting -- I might even have to put aside my anti-Old Clothes bias to read it (actually, now that I think of it, the Old Clothes thing just extends to movies, and even now I'm starting to be OK with Old Clothes.)

  2. Blogger OHD | 10:26 PM |  

    Old Clothes are the best clothes! Wait, what?

  3. Blogger OHD | 10:26 PM |  

    This comment has been removed by the author.

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