S.C.'s Reviews > The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
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's review
May 25, 2012

really liked it
Read in October, 2010

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, "The Little Stranger" accrued positive reception from critics when it was released in May of 2009 - quotes ranged from describing it as "deliciously creepy" to "a terrific, chilling read you can get lost in". Even Stephen King weighed in, saying "several sleepless nights are guaranteed". If by "sleepless nights" King meant the scares it offers will keep a reader awake most of the night in a state of nervous tension, he is wrong. Though it is an interesting and elegantly told story about the possibility (not confirmation) of a malevolent spirit causing a family distress, it does not come close to the disturbing depictions and scenarios a horror novel offers (especially his). The "scares" contained herein are of an insidious nature- what the reader is offered instead of aggressive and demonic aura is a slow and delicious build, a grand tease, the reader strung along to the very end. So if by "sleepless nights" King meant that the story hooks a reader with such urgency that sleep is sacrificed to finish that paragraph, that chapter (and chapters are LONG, averaging about 30 pages each) or perhaps the entire book, then he is not far off the mark.

British author Sarah Waters (Tipping The Velvet) brings things full circle for the character of Dr. Faraday, the voice of the book. Though never having lived within the walls of Hundreds Hall, an 18th century Georgian estate in his hometown of Warwickshire, Faraday has a long and curious history with the house, beginning when he is 10 years old. Returning 30 years later on a call to examine a young housemaid, he is disheartened by Hundreds's fall into disrepair and his once innocent fascination with the place begins to border on obsession, Faraday becoming an integral part of a strange and tragic history for the Ayres family.

It is through his eyes that we see Hundreds' distraught occupants. There is Angela Ayres, the matriarch, described as lovely and old-fashioned; Roderick, her son and a war veteran who has returned from combat, his psychological scars more prominent than the physical; and Caroline, her 27-year old daughter who cares nothing of her spinster status and runs free and barefoot about the property like a tomboy, her dog Gyp two steps behind. Faraday awkwardly falls into their lives and once he bridges the gap from family physician to family friend and begins courting Caroline, he is without escape from the "taint" of which both the Ayres children are convinced has taken hold of the family.

Before I started reading "The Little Stranger", I went to Amazon.com's product page and took a brief glimpse of its customer reviews. The average review was 3.5 stars (out of a possible 5), a substandard score that suggested that many people who read it found that it didn't meet their expectations. I went into this novel expecting what most people did: a ghost story, a narrative that focused on a frightening haunt. What I got instead was something literary rather than plot-driven, an examination on the effects of modernization (Waters never intended to write a ghost story; she was exploring "the rise of socialism in the UK and how the fading gentry dealt with losing their legacies"), familial hardship and tragedy, and possibly the author's supposition on where the paranormal comes from through a theory offered by a character named Seeley.

The book is best read at long stretches - those who drift in and out frequently due to lack of time will become disinterested quickly due to Waters's painstaking build (it takes over 100 pages before anything untoward happens at Hundreds). Characters are irksome - Caroline bothered me at times, her emotional restraint bordering on detachment and frigidity. I began to wish as much as Faraday did that she would just let go and let herself be loved by him and I became as frustrated with her as he did when his gentle advances were rebuffed time and time again. But Faraday is transparent - Caroline's insinuation that he wants a marriage in order to possess the house isn't just paranoid accusation and in the end he gets what he subconsciously longed for at great price. Nonetheless, Waters is a masterful storyteller and it is because of her capabilities as both a raconteur and an astute craftswoman of prose that I award her book a 4-star rating. If not for my diminished expectation of plot and the deliberate pace, it would've had 5.

Bottom line: Do not go into "The Little Stranger" thinking you will get a straightforward story about frightening apparitions and disembodied voices, the kinds of in-your-face scares that most people look for this time of year. This is, much like Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House" before it, a tale of psychological terror, one that picks away slowly and agonizingly at the sanity of its characters. Waters will pick at your imagination, stealing it well into the wee hours that you'll be reading.

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