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The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
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's review
Nov 16, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: 2010, booker-prize-finalist
Read in December, 2010

I have finished The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. I considered giving it a wide variety of ratings(2,3 or 4),but in the end I will give it 4 stars. It was incredibly well written. The subtlety of her writing and the depth of the characters were wonderful. Makes me think how different it is to read this kind of book, rather than a fluffy romance novel. I am struggling to deside if I would rate it higher than Wolf Hall(for a book group). I'm affaid if I don't, it's just because I didn't like the story as much as I liked the story of Wolf Hall. I can't say more without the warning.

Spoilers ahead!

I don't really have any critiques of the style or quality of writing. It was wonderful. It was just such a depressing ending that I can't deside what I think of this book.

It reminds me of the movie Premonition. Movie spoiler in this paragraph. The most depressing movie I ever saw. The ability of the wife to experience days out of order, causes her husbands death in the end. Incredibly well done as well, but in the end I'm not sure I was happy to have seen it and that's how I feel about The Little Stranger.

An evaluation of the story; I eventually grew tired of Faraday's need to make everything logical and disregard all supernatural posibilities. I think Waters wanted the readers to feel this way and start rooting for Caroline to break free. During the trial at the end I so badly wanted him to say, "no, there was something going on in that house that science cannot explain, so I can not say with any certainty that her death was either a suicide or the result of an unsound mind." But alas, he said yes to a suicide whilst of unsound mind. If Faraday would have demonstrated enough growth to at least consider the unexplainble I might have given this book 5 stars. I believe books are much better when the writer creates characters that demonstrate growth and those in this book do not. I guess I do have that one critique of the writing. I further would have liked Faraday to say goodbye to Hundreds and taken that job in the hospital of the bigger town, rather than continuing his deadend job. And what's with wandering through Hundreds at the end as if daring the Little Stranger to appear and shatter his tired assumptions of how things are. I would have liked that ending better too. The only one to demonstrate any growth was Caroline, when she told Faraday the wedding was off. She finally threw off Faraday's scientifically limited explinations, but then she was killed before she could leave. Her death was the most disapointing event in the book. I guess Betty was the only one to escape and perhaps grow up a little bit.

One theory I found interesting was put forward by Doctor Seeley. That a severely disturbed mind might have the ability to create something like a spirit, unintentionally coming out of the subconscious mind. A theory I have not heard before and found quite intriguing.

I find the idea of ghost, spirits and supernatural stuff to be quite interesting and would have found this book much more enjoyable if just one of the people had escaped the influence of The Little Stranger.

Additional thoughts on who the little stranger could be.

My first inclination would be to go with the ghost of the dead child, but if I agreed with the disturbed mind theory(and the more i think about it I might) Faraday would be the third choice on my list at best. He's too set in his logical ways to be involved in such a thing, even unconsciously. The obvious choice is Rod, already being damaged goods from his war injuries and failure to live up to family expectations. He's certainly disturbed enough to cause it, but I like a less obvious choice. The one person who was never hurt by any of this(just scared herself), showed her deviousness in her first meeting with Doctor Faraday faking that illness and got her dream job in the end. She was the only one in the whole book to show the cleverness this ploy would take. Betty! The dumb country bumpkin thing is just a cover. You can't help where or who raised you. She could be a mensa candidate that was just never in a position to show the depth of her mind. Her unconscious self dreamed up a way to get out of a place and job she didn't like. Doctor Faraday showed himself to be playable going along with her "illness." Betty was always there seeing who was struggling and therefore susceptible to being scared by the Little Stranger. The most desturbing possibility is that Betty could have knowingly been involved in helping the Little Stranger, just finishing them off with her conscious and unconscious minds coming together in the end or maybe it was all unconscious. Being there to hang the mother and push Caroline over the railing. Setting the fire in Rod's room is really a compelling case. She was there when everything happened. The perfect psychopath. She just wanted a factory job and everybody that got in her way died. Doctor Faraday wasn't in her way since he wasn't in line to own Hundreds so she didn't waist her time killing him. Then at the end scaring Caroline into leaving and therefore leaving the shakey engagement was much easier than killing the doctor. The last pages of the book indict her the most. If I had experienced half of what she experienced at Hundreds I'd be in a mental ward. That's what happened to Rod. He lived through the horrors of war, but not this? It was that bad to deal with. This explains why Betty stayed long past when any other servant would. Their long time servant fled, but not Betty who is new and doesn't like the job anyway? And Betty comes out of it so well adjusted she gets within view of the house without breaking a sweat? And with no counciling?That only makes sense if she's behind it all. Freaky!
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11/18/2010 page 30
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Dalia I finished reading the book yesterday and was so disappointed with the ending for two reasons. 1. That Caroline Died and 2. The Little stranger was not revealed!
After I read your review, you shed some light on a new possibility I didn’t consider which is "Betty", but still I'm not convinced, I think it’s the dead child S or mostly Dr. Farady with his unconscious spirit because the writer hints at the end that all he saw was the reflection of his face. Plus, he wanted the house so bad which what made me hate him at the end because if he really loved Caroline; he should have taken her away from Hundreds. and the evil stuff didn’t happen until he showed up!
A similar book with a puzzling ending would be In The Woods by French !

message 13: by Bynz (last edited Aug 06, 2011 12:06PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bynz I think the last two paragraphs of the book, if not the other suggestions, should make it fairly clear it is Faraday:
"Every so often I'll sense a presence, or catch a movement at the corner of my eye, and my heart will give a jolt of fear and expectation: I'll imagine that the secret is about to be revealed to me at last; that I will see what Caroline saw, and recognize it, as she did.

If Hundreds hall is haunted, however, its ghost doesn't show itself to me. For I'll turn, and am disappointed -- realizing that what I am looking at is only a cracked window-pane, and that the face gazing distortedly from it, baffled and longing, is my own."

He was literally the little stranger when he first visited the house. And the 'little stranger' later.

There was quite a bit of foreshadowing (one of which helped me figure out the 'little stranger' much too soon and thus I ruined the story for myself) but here are some that come to mind :
- When Dr Faraday suggests that it could be Betty who's up to some mischief since all the trouble began after she was employed, Caroline dismisses him saying it can very well be said that all that started after they got to know him.
- The parts of the story where he describes he felt himself go to Hundreds Hall while he's asleep.
- Caroline says something to the effect that he wants the house more than he wants her
- And how he loses it at the court when vivid images of Caroline come to him, her expression of recognition and horror and the outline of something shadowy and dreadful reflected in her eyes.

(BTW, Faraday does indicate some doubt about all the incidents having a rational explanation in his conversation with Seeley. He says something about how cumulatively it doesn't make sense, even if single incidents can be explained rationally. Also Betty's father does want her to leave Hundreds after Mrs Ayres passes and the nature of how gets into the papers, so she needn't have stayed around to kill Caroline. )

So if Faraday is the 'little stranger', of course he wouldn't move away from Hundreds.

Susan Bynz, I agree. That last sentence finally makes it all as clear as day. I'd forgotten the dream sequences, however -- you're right, that's another strong clue that Faraday was in the house even when his physical body wasn't.

message 11: by Bynz (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bynz Yeah, I loved all the foreshadowing! And the last sentence elevated the book from 4 to 5 stars for me.

I'm thinking it's time for a re-read! :)

message 10: by Barbara (new)

Barbara I think Faraday was responsible too but if a story has a logical explanation there shouldnt' be so many loose ends left - how was he responsible for all the things that happened? This book also reminded me of In the Woods in that I felt cheated by the end - although not as much as with French's book which had no plausible explanation at all.

message 9: by Bynz (last edited May 22, 2013 09:33AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bynz I also need media to tie some --not all-- loose ends and I thought this book did a good job with that. I don't think Sarah Waters intended to explain the [non-]science of paranormal activity; she just tells us that it was. Which I really liked actually.

It's been a while since I read it but Faraday tells us that he feels like Hundreds is pulling him and that he feels like he's there even though he was miles away physically. Or were you perhaps thinking Sarah was not alluding to the paranormal?

message 8: by Susan (last edited May 22, 2013 09:26AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Susan Barbara wrote: "I think Faraday was responsible too but if a story has a logical explanation there shouldnt' be so many loose ends left - how was he responsible for all the things that happened? This book also rem..." Well, you have to accept the fantasy premise, which Waters explains very clearly, several times, including right at the end. A poltergeist isn't the ghost of a dead person but an emanation from the troubled unconscious of a living person. Faraday seems on the surface like a plodding, steady, unimaginative everyman-type narrator, but we see at the beginning that even as a child he had a wild, destructive streak, and one that established his malicious connection with the house early on. Toward the end of the book, when he freaks out over Caroline's breaking their engagement, starts drinking heavily and engaging in more and more eccentric behavior, we begin to understand that there's a lot going on under his ordinary looking, plodding surface, and it ain't pretty.

message 7: by Barbara (new)

Barbara I suppose you two are right. I'm more a reader of traditional detective fiction where the loose ends are tied up. And it seems too easy for the author, who can give the plot all kinds of intriguing twists and turns if she can then attribute them to vague emanations that can cause all kinds of unexplained physical disturbances.

message 6: by Bynz (last edited May 24, 2013 02:58PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bynz For me, it depends on the genre. In detective fiction, I would think that an author is taking the easy way out if most, or all, loose ends are not tied up. But in this genre, I prefer authors not being so caught up in explaining the pseudo-science; the ones that do attempt to either get so full of themselves or get so hopelessly lost in it that they end up making me laugh at the illogicality of it all. So like Susan said, you'd have to suspend disbelief and accept the premise of the genre, if you don't want to feel cheated at the end of it.

message 5: by Barbara (new)

Barbara That makes sense - I guess this genre is not for me. :-)

Bynz Luckily for you, she writes other genres. :) I LOVED Fingersmith! And she ties up all loose ends and then some in that one! Night Watch was a drag though.

message 3: by Barbara (new)

Barbara That's interesting. Night Watch is the only other book of hers I've read. I found it a bit of a drag too, yet I gave her another try because I like the way she writes. After this I was going to give up, but I'll try Fingersmith now. Thanks.

Bynz Wow, I'm amazed you persevered if Night Watch was your first of Waters! Anyway, I never knew I harboured a secret love for the flowery Victorian way of writing until I read Fingersmith, so amongst the book's other delights, this was a welcome find! And I'd suggest that you don't read anything about the book and just get right into it, like I, unwittingly but thankfully, did.

message 1: by Barbara (new)

Barbara Thanks for the recommendation. I'm about 3/4 of the way through Fingersmith now and really enjoying it - more so than the other two. The writing and the excellent and intriguing plot keeps me turning the pages and I'm hoping there won't be loose ends with this one.

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