Northern Mummy

General thoughts and wittering about all sorts of things

The Little Stranger

on August 6, 2010

As I said, I’ve now finished The Little Stranger too.  Hmm, difficult to review.  It was one of those books I couldn’t put down while I was reading it and yet when I had to put it down, I could easily go days before getting back to it.  Strange – I’d never have been able to to that with Fingersmith, which I gobbled as fast as I could.

The book is narrated from the point of view of Dr Faraday, a man in his forties who has had a lifelong fascination with Hundreds Hall since he visited as a child with his mother who used to work there and had remained friends with some of the staff.  As an adult he has occasion to visit again when the maid (one of only two remaining staff as the house visibly falls apart after World War II) becomes ill and the usual GP is unable to attend.  His involvement with the Hall and its inhabitants progresses from then onwards as he becomes ever more drawn into their problems: lack of money, confusion over their place in society, illness (in the case of Mrs Ayres and her son Rod) and the less tangible but increasingly pervasive air of threat which overhangs them.

Waters has captured a really convincing tone in Faraday’s narrative: that of an educated and rational man who would like to set out the facts and particulars as accurately as he can, but is unable to do exactly as he wishes because he doesn’t really understand the events he’s describing.  In some passages, time passes very quickly and there is a sense that Faraday does not feel that they are important to his overall story, whereas other passages are described in great detail, almost as if he remembers them much more clearly. His confusion over his relationship with Caroline Ayres, the daughter of the family at Hundreds, is very believable, as is his struggle to reconcile his mounting concern over the apparently supernatural occurrences there with his innate belief that there must be a rational explanation for everything.

The sinister atmosphere that overhangs everything in the story has a real effect on the reader – to the extent that I actually gave up reading it for a few weeks because I was becoming unsettled and couldn’t sleep well!  In addition (and here I’m going to depart from my usual habit and include a SPOILER because it’s something that really jumped out at me and I haven’t heard anything about it anywhere else) I found it very disturbing that at the end, Faraday decides first not to concur with Betty’s opinions at the inquest, that there is something threatening in the house and then three years after the Ayres family have all departed, he continues to visit the house although he never sees what it was Caroline saw which caused her to fall (or pushed her?) to her death.  To me it seemed very much as if the house has taken hold of Faraday in exactly the way it had taken hold of the others and that ultimately – in a natural or a supernatural way – it will lead to his demise also.

I don’t have much experience of the “Gothic” genre: my love of Northanger Abbey has led me to resolve several times to read Ann Radcliffe and Horace Walpole but so far I haven’t done!  However Waters’ writing is so skillful and effective I’m not surprised that she has received high acclaim, as well as various award nominations, for this.

ADDENDUM (20/11/10): My husband has recently finished this and, like me, was desperate to discuss it with someone so we have talked about our responses.  I was surprised to discover that his interpretation of the paranormal element was completely different from mine and (annoyingly!) made much more sense.  I feel that my focus was misdirected by an article I read shortly before beginning the novel, in which Sarah Waters herself was quoted as saying that she had been in part influenced by Josephine Tey’s novel The Franchise Affair and the character of the girl, Betty, had made a particular impact on her which was why she had named the maid Betty in The Little Stranger.  I think this led me to pay closer attention to Betty than I perhaps should have done and lent more credence to her opinions than to anyone else’s.  Ultimately, according to my husband’s reading, the malevolent presence in the house was Faraday’s desire for the house, somehow detached and unleashed upon the members of the family.  During the time at which Rod’s room spontaneously sets itself on fire, as at the time of Caroline’s fall from the stairs, Faraday himself is having undefined but troubled and violent dreams.  The unexplained events always seem to take place when the threat of Faraday’s being separated from the hall is at its greatest (e.g. the first incident, with the dog biting the child, takes place shortly after Faraday has become angry, upon realising that the party has been set up to establish some sort of match between Caroline and one of the guests) and the menace subsides when things are going in his favour.  The fact that when, at the end, he continues to visit the Hall to search for what Caroline saw (and named “You!”) just prior to her fall, he sees only his own face, seems to support the argument that that, in fact, was exactly the cause of the problem.  For this reason perhaps I am wrong in suspecting that he’s in danger from the house, although ultimately his desire for it has not been fulfilled and although he is its only visitor the house no more belongs to him than to anyone.  The events of the novel have ensured that he will never be anything more than what he has always been: a visitor.

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