'You're the meanest of all! You're the one who drugged me!'
I almost wish I didn't "have" to write this review, because, though this is a flawed book,...more'You're the meanest of all! You're the one who drugged me!'
I almost wish I didn't "have" to write this review, because, though this is a flawed book, it's a book that gave me one of the best reading experiences I've had: a thrilling, searing and disturbing little novel that totally hooked me.
Okay, so I admit, I came to this novel slightly prejudiced. I have grown to absolutely hate the narrative choice of constructing the entire plot around one secret that the protagonist refuses to divulge. Charm & Strange is an incredibly well-written variant on this plot, but it couldn't quite make me overcome my hatred of this deliberately elliptical way of pretending at discussing an issue without discussing it. However, due to Kuehn's incredibly readable "psychological study" of her main characters, this cosiness was, thankfully, almost entirely removed.
Still, I wish that Win's big secret had come out a little sooner, because I wanted more. I wanted more of Win's realisations, Win's family - especially his older brother, Keith, who was probably my favourite character in the novel, and his and Drew's dynamic was the undoubted highlight - and the impact of what had actually happened, rather than Kuehn's intriguing and well written but ultimately frustrating writing around these subjects. I enjoyed her crafty and incredibly disciplined tactic of peeling away layers of Win's psyche, but there was a point when it just wasn't enough for me and I wanted more clarity.
As a result, I just COULDN'T get hooked to the present ("matter") sections. I found that I was skimming them without intending to, in an attempt to get back to Win's claustrophobic childhood summer at a house in New Hampshire with his large and eerie family. None of the present characters had the emotional pull for me that young Drew (Win's past alter ego) or Keith, Drew's tragic elder brother (who I loved so much that I actually feel like crying when I think a bit about what a book from his perspective would have looked like, I mean, god damn). Because of the tragedy of the "antimatter" sections, the "matter" sections felt like a nowhere near as interesting counterpoint to me.
Yet, reading Charm & Strange was a little like having a hole burned in my heart. I wanted to save Drew, and Keith, and Win (Win and Drew are different people - kind of) and I just felt so sad for everybody. The sense of sadness, guilt and intensity that Kuehn projects throughout the novel is unforgettable and incredibly painful. No, it's not without its flaws (to me), but there's no denying that this one promising debut.(less)
2 stars? 3 stars? 1 star? I had no idea what to rate this, so I just averaged right in the middle. Make of that what you will.This review will be some...more2 stars? 3 stars? 1 star? I had no idea what to rate this, so I just averaged right in the middle. Make of that what you will.This review will be somewhat incoherent and fragmented, because I had no idea what to make of this novel in general. It's one of those books that I really had to slog through, to be quite frank. Now that I'm done, my impression of it is slightly more favourable, but I simply can't rate a book from which I had to skim-read large sections so I wouldn't get bored and drop it altogether and that I had to read over a period of 7 months, with large gaps in my reading.
Firstly, I couldn't resist the blurb. Have you read it? Read it. A ghost story set in the mid-late 1940's, in postwar rural Britain, about the decline of a once-rich landowning family - I couldn't resist. I was sold, I was there. Duly, the first 100 pages were great: atmospheric and eerie to the point where I felt - that cliche! - that I was in Hundreds Hall, surrounded by the creaking old furniture and feeling the dust rise from the walls and floorboards.
Somewhere around page 200, though, disenchantment and disillusionment started to set in. I don't know which reading hook to hang this on: did it run out of steam? Did the train go veering wildly off the tracks? Sadly (!), it was neither of those. There would have been something unique and interesting in that. It just went on too long - so slow that, around page 350, I found myself a grand total of three times wondering if my Kindle was wrong and I was further through it than I thought, and that's not an exaggeration. The pace was so painfully dragging that any atmosphere dried up long before the big 'scares.'
I use 'scare' as a somewhat relative word because, let me put it this way: I am a baby. I am such a baby that one particularly eerie sentence can haunt my memory and keep me awake in the dark of my house. Nothing scared me in The Little Stranger. I will edit this if, tonight, I find myself menaced by creaking or voices in my fireplace but, largely, I think I was left flat and unconcerned, even for a moment. So what's left? A bloated ghost story, over long - atmospheric to begin with, then swiftly losing all charm as time went by - with Waters seemingly convinced to never use one word when ten would do, the pace so slow and crawling that I'm pretty sure I could walk through treacle faster than it moves, and padding out the book with so many random occurrences that I wondered if she was being paid by the word like in Dickensian times. It really was the pace that killed this novel. I swear, for all that happened, it could've (should've) been novella length.
So why not 1 star? The atmosphere of the first 200-ish pages convinced me that Waters is actually a great writer, she could just use a harsher agent and a less coy editor. The atmosphere is here, and the ending is one of the very few - even slight - chills in the novel. Waters manages to pull off that tricky thing - ambiguity - with an impressive sleight of hand. All in all, though, I think this is still a pass from me.