Endless Reads Review: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

 

 

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?

 

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20 Comments

Filed under 2012, book cover, book review, Endless Reads 2012

20 responses to “Endless Reads Review: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

  1. Interesting review, I wonder what you would think of Susan Hill’s ‘The Woman in Black’, another ghost story, which didn’t scare me, but which I enjoyed all the same, though I won’t be seeing the film because I am sure that would and I find scary films to be exhausting because I can’t seem to get my body to understand what my mind already does 🙂

    • I’ve never read the book, but saw the film recently – it did have a few jump scares, but overall it’s not one of my favourites. I am more a fan of the terrifying Japanese films that were out a few years ago. Anything particularly gory though and that’s me on the floor, so I try to stay clear!

  2. CJ

    Chilling review for a writer to read as the thing which scares me most is building a bloodless book –a true Frankenstein–stitched together right but without a pulse. An object, not a subject.

    • It frightens me too, CJ. But you can never tell until the thing is done, and even then there is always hope of revival, last second interventions.

      • CJ

        True that. My new book is all bones right now but I think they are good ones. Now comes the muscle.

    • I think this comes from what Al Watt calls ‘holding on,’ when the author refuses to abandon her original idea for the story to embrace what the story can become.

      However, I do love my Agatha Christies and I can’t say they have much of a pulse. For me they’re like really good sitcoms on TV: not much substance, but you don’t necessarily miss it. There’s plenty of room on my shelf for them.

      • CJ

        I love the light and clever and funny and entertaining too.

      • That sounds like something to be wary of, clinging too much. Good to keep in mind.

        I think it was all about my expectations going in, I wanted lingering scare, and all I got was something like Midsomer Murders. (Not that that’s bad, just wasn’t what I was expecting.)

      • Yeah, we need a little light relief sometimes, but you do want to know what you’re getting. This conversation is making me understand the importance of the blurb.

  3. I read this book last year, and I know what you mean – it isn’t a book with a huge impact factor. Have you read Fingersmith? That’s a much more powerful book.

    • No, I’ve never read it. I was hearing so much about Waters, but all were saying this book was excellent too, so I went for it. Possibly I’ll check out Fingersmith in the future, if it falls to hand.

  4. Great review. I love the way you demand the characters possess a pulse and that the flesh of the book is warm. I am (still) reading (savouring) ‘The Book of Daniel’ and sometimes that thing happens – everything collides together and as a reader you are left breathless. Doesn’t always happen with Bestsellers.

    • Thanks Catherine – I’m trying to comment over on your blog, but having trouble. I always come unstuck with captcha – it’s not even coming up this time. Thought you should know!

      • Thanks Helen. Oh dear this is not the first time I’ve heard this. I’ll have a look but probably have to call in a superhero friend. Grazie!

  5. Hrm…interesting. I have this book on my shelf – I bought it for a quid or something from The Works on Princes St – and I do plan on getting round to it soon. Now I feel better prepared for what to expect! And now I’m very interested as to how I might respond to it. Whee!

  6. CarolS

    Fingersmith is much much more than you’ve cited in this review. Clever, surprising, shocking and marvellous. Do read it!

    • I am hearing a lot of good about it. I really should pick it up at some point (not sure if I’m going to repeat authors on the Endless Reads project, so it might have to wait a bit).

  7. Pingback: Of Hargate Hall | Schietree

  8. Helene Stephens

    “The Little Stranger” is one of my top-ten favorites, springing from roots of quiet terror found in “Turn of the Screw” and “Fall of the House of Usher”.

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