Re: View – ‘The Little Stranger’
Sarah Waters’ Gothic supernatural novel, long-listed for the man Booker prize, has become a bestseller, but all is not what it seems. On the surface it’s a very traditional ghost story complete with a grand old house and a haunting, but there’s more going on here, something which not all the readers who have posted Amazon reviews appear to get. Let’s see if I can explain without giving the game away.
Dr Faraday is a country doctor, called to visit Hundreds, a country house where Mrs Ayres lives with her sturdy daughter and neurasthenic ex-pilot son. The time is just after WW!!, and as soon as the house receives visitations from something that knocks, scorches and moves objects around we couple it to the knowledge that Mrs Ayres lost a daughter to illness – not difficult to do, given the book’s title. The Ayres family can ill-afford to keep the house running. After the war, thousands of country houses were torn down because the class system had changed. And there lies the key to the book.
An air of decay seeps through the narrative to the point where it becomes downright depressing, but the doctor’s fascination with the family (he is dull and middle-class, they are formerly wealthy landowners) is matched by the collapse, through madness and death, of the Ayres. We see their land slowly encroached upon by the boxy new council houses of the post-war reformists. Waters takes an unfashionable stance in championing the elite over the bourgeois, and as a romance appears to form between doctor and daughter, we wonder if Faraday’s real fascination lies with the house and not the woman.
What Waters has done – and I’m not sure if anyone ever has before – is lock the ghost story in step with the social commentary novel until one becomes the cause of the other. There’s no grand climax, no huge twist, but a slow dawning comes upon the reader about what can cause a haunting; envy, anger, frustration more than love. The book becomes an elegy for something lost more than someone lost, which makes it very English and possibly limits its appeal to those who agree with its sentiments.