Tuesday, December 08, 2009

book review - The Little Stranger - Sarah Waters







In a year of reading that has included some MR James, Turn of the Screw and a ghost story at the end of the year by Wilkie Collins it was with real interest to sit down with a ghost story written by a modern writer.

Having said that Sarah Waters chose to set her story in the past in as much as post-war in a world that was changing as the aristocracy faced up to life with debts, little chance of their pain easing and a Labour government looking to support and reward the common people that had fought and suffered so much in the war.

One of these common people is Doctor Faraday who remembers the setting for the story Hundreds Hall as a child visiting with his mother who used to work as a servant in the house. Back then the house was grand but as the young Faraday found out all too well after pocketing a chunk of decoration it was crumbling.

But the main action happens much later as the doctor is in his 40ths and the house has been left to crumble with the doctor making friends with the current tenants an elderly Mrs Ayres and her son Roderick and daughter Caroline. The doctor initially enters the house to help with a maid who complains of an eeriness in the house that she believes comes from a haunting.

A relationship with the family grows from that with the doctor treating a reluctant Roderick for war wounds and developing feelings for Caroline. The problems the family face are all too physically in evidence with the house crumbling, rooms shut up and the grounds being sold off to develop a housing estate and provide funds to prop up the hall.

Roderick bears most of the brunt of the responsibility and so it is assumed that when he starts complaining of things happening and the house having it in for him that he is starting to have a breakdown. Even after his room is burnt out the doctor looks for a rational explanation and packs Roddy off to a mental home.

That leaves him with Caroline and Mrs. Ayres both of whom share his scepticism. But then things continue to happen and the question of whether or not Hundreds hall is haunted is something that cannot be ignored.

For the doctor, who by this time has developed a romantic attachment to both Caroline and the Hall, the answer is always rational. But for those living in the Hall and coping with feelings of fear and guilt over the death of a daughter and sibling the danger feels all too real.

Waters stokes the fires of this Gothic story masterly and in my humble opinion this would have been a good choice for the Booker prize. Well written and plotted it is supported by characterisation that underlines the divisions that can occur in relationships when one person refuses to believe the other.

If you are looking for a book that has the ability to send a shiver down the spine but also provoke thoughts about the state of the world for down at heel aristos after the war then this is both chiller and historically bang on the mark.

One of my favourite reads of 2009.

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