There are books that carry a kind of energy within them. They tremble with fire, electricity, they surge to fill the room when we read them. They take you to the edge of all things and point down, saying, there, see those stars? See the immeasurable distance between each? Until you get dizzy and have to step back.
There are books that are like following a long tunnel in the candle-lit dimness- with only the touch of damp, dripping rock to keep you aware of what surrounds you. Only faith in the story to keep you going onwards.
Others are like a scent, familiar and elusive. Mint and Spring soil- you catch a hint of it on the air, you wander after it, through the broad garden, trying to get at the elusive thing, and progress is slow, dreamy.
And then there is The Little Stranger. A book that is well made, carefully plotted, quite engaging. A book that does none of these things to the senses, but is an achievement in other ways. Now and then the language sparks a little. Now and then, I thought of the characters, I almost believed in the truth of them. There was even one who reminded me, quite painfully, of someone I know. But I never mistook the solid construction for near-living flesh. I don’t believe when you read a book, you have to believe the characters are real – they are made of words – but I do feel you have to step into some kind of hazy half-state where you believe, yes, they almost are. You have to hear the pulse of the book.
The novel is set shortly after the Second World War, in Warwickshire. It is narrated by Dr Faraday, a solid, quite sympathetic character who has come up from being a shopkeeper’s son, but as with these things, is not quite comfortable with his station in life. He falls in with the Ayres, the increasingly impoverished and grief-stricken family who occupy their ancestral home, Hundreds Hall, a large country house around which most of the action of the novel takes place.
I started reading with the idea that this was a ghost story, when in fact it is a story of class, and of the massive changes that took place to the class system after WW2 and with the dawn of the NHS and council houses. Waters deftly describes the lingering squalor of rural life, of houses with perpetual damp, without central heating, when people were sometimes wary of doctors because they could not afford to pay them and had to rely on things like a bull’s heart nailed to the chimney to keep evil spirits at bay. She shows the fear in the mind of Dr Faraday as the deadline for the launch of the NHS nears, and his realisation that it leaves everyone better off. She shows the old cars, the dance halls, the corners of England still without electricity or mains water. The images are there, the period detail. But.
But I was expecting a ghost story. I was expecting to be scared. As you can tell from the ‘schie’ in the name of this blog, I do like a bit of a supernatural edge to things. I enjoy the uncanny, an atmosphere that unsettles. A detail aslant, askew. Things not right. But perhaps in tying the now inevitably-seeming decline of the aristocracy to the tale of a haunted, crumbling house and the haunted, crumbling aristo family, the sense of the uncanny, the unexpected which frightens and thrills is by dint diminished? The scares transformed into a muted tragedy.
Even taking this into account, and thinking of another English book on the class system after the war – The Remains of the Day – I find the comparison unfavourable. Ishiguro’s novel is another quiet, muted book, seen through the eyes of another quiet, muted man, but it breaks the heart, it fills the room with the unsaid, the lost.
Everything is in its right place in The Little Stranger. It is what it is, a well-written book, and because of this was nominated for the Booker in 2009. But nothing moves. There is no pulse, but this is not a terrifying thing – would you be frightened if you took the pulse of a vase, or a stone statue, and it had none?