Friday, September 3, 2010

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. Virago £7.99
Reviewed by Jan Edwards

WW2 has just ended and like many of its ilk Hundreds Hall in Warwickshire is spiralling into decay, as is the society that had supported it in bygone times. Dr Faraday is called to an emergency at the Hall. He is curious about the place since his mother had been a maid there between the wars. He had once sat in the kitchen as a small boy eating left-over jellies from a village celebration; and he had stood in reverence as a teenager at the funeral of the owners’ then only child, victim of the diphtheria epidemics that ravaged Britain at that time.

Taxes, changing laws and the general decline of the gentleman farmer’s lot had brought the Ayres’ and Hundreds to their knees despite all Roddie Ayres could do – injured RAF ace and now, at age 24, the reluctant owner of Hundreds. So when Dr Faraday arrives he is shocked by its condition. As Faraday is drawn into the family’s activities he becomes aware of other factors. Is there an insipient streak of insanity running through that family? Or is it the Hundreds, or something in it, that is causing one disaster after another?

Essentially, this is a romance between Faraday and Caroline Ayres; between Mrs Ayres and the memory of her eldest daughter who died so long ago; between all of the Ayres family and Hundreds itself. And with that love comes the hate, and the class and gender prejudices.

Beautifully written as one expects from a book shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. But slow; very slow. I reached page 240 (out of 499) before very much at all has happened. Yes, it is a page turner that sucks you into Hundreds’ claustrophobic world so that you are compelled to read on. But it was also an effort not to turn to the last chapter to get to the end of the novel.

The house and the family are stock Gothic in many ways, albeit well drawn, and the paranormal elements (or psychological – depending on how you read it) are well researched. But I suspect that most readers of Gothic or horror or paranormal fiction will find that part of it quite tame. There is a lot of telling rather than showing which defuses much of the tension. And there is a first person narrator in Faraday who does far too good a job at debunking any theory that dares be ‘unscientific’.

If this is a ‘paranormal romance’ the emphasis is definitely on the romance. As for the paranormal element: the cover puffs call The Little Stranger ‘chilling’ and ‘unnerving’ and the reader is told to ‘sleep with the light on’. Really? These reviewers apparently led very sheltered lives.

Verdict: a beautifully written book that comments on the social and, to some extent, the political history of those post war years, and a book that I found very curiously satisfying in its conclusion.

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