Sarah Waters – The Little Stranger

13Sep09

This is the first book on the Booker shortlist that I’ve tackled this year, and I have to admit that my opinion on the book remains ambivalent. Having finished Fingersmith a couple of weeks back, I expected a lot more from The Little Stranger – more twists and turns, and surprises. Ironically, what makes The Little Stranger good is the subtlety and the lack of hyperbolism – that the story isn’t swept away by the author’s imagination, to degenerate into a run-of-the-mill horror story.

Set in post-war 1947, in Warwickshire, the story is narrated by the pragmatic Dr. Faraday. One day, he is called to the Hundreds Hall, to treat the maid, and there he re-acquaints himself with the once wealthy Ayres family, whose fortunes have faded with time. He remembers the time when he visited the exquisite mansion, as a young boy, to be presented a commemorative medal, and he marvels at its dilapidated condition now.

Once he “treats” Betty, he continues to find reasons to return to the Hundreds Hall, as he recalls its past splendours, and juxtaposes that against the present state. He befriends the family, becomes almost indispensable to them, and the family themselves seek his company – they have few visitors now-a-days, and they do not invite their old friends as they are ashamed of the present.

The family constitutes of Mrs. Ayres, the lady of the house; Caroline, her plain eldest child, and Roderick, who was severely injured during the War, and still has a limp. He now looks after the estate, by selling plots of land and living off its capital, while trying to protect his mother and sister from seeing how bad things truly are.

One night, the Ayres decide to have a party, to welcome their new neighbours, but things go frightfully wrong, and its during this party that the story actually kicks off. Rod does not attend the party due to a headache, but after the party, Rod seems to succumb to his “nerves problem” and eventually suffers a nervous breakdown of sorts.

As the story progresses, it seems as though there is an unwelcome “mischief-maker” in the house. But, whom, or what, is causing the mischief? There’s no evident answer – what is clear, though, is that the Ayres are glad to have the services of Dr. Faraday, who rationalises and provides a scientific explanation for every event – something that probably comes naturally to most doctors.

While Dr. Faraday narrates the events, and provides the reader with a glimpse of the emotions of all the characters, he also successfully draws on the changing political, economic and social climate. He’s worried about his own future, after the National Health Service is established, for he fears he will lose his patients. He’s concerned about the Ayres, and their large estate being turned into council houses – something that happened to numerous mansions and grounds at the time. He highlights the changing class system, by stating the comment from Roderick early on in the book: “I gather that neglecting servants is a capital offence these days”.

The book also raises many interesting topics, in terms of society and how times change, and how important it is for the people to change with times. The general opinion on the Ayres misfortune is based on them being stuck in their glorious past, as opposed to adapting with the times. It brings out the role of a doctor, and what drives a typical doctor, in a day where money and fame wasn’t altogether prominent in the occupation. Simultaneously, it also shows how self-righteous and know-it-all-ish doctors can be, with Dr. Faraday more than once saying “I know so”, when asked what he thought about something. Most importantly, it indicates how losses and heartbreaks can haunt people, and twist the hands of their fate.

However, my main gripes with the book was that occasionally, the writing fell flat, and, I just didn’t feel the Warwickshire atmosphere. I went to university at Warwick, and I didn’t really feel the essence of that, despite Waters dropping the names of the towns and cities around, like Leamington, Coventry, and Kenilworth. Also, as already mentioned, I missed the surprise factor which made Fingersmith so incredibly addictive.

Rating: 3

Note: I can’t help wondering if I would have rated this book differently, if I hadn’t read Fingersmith recently.

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5 Responses to “Sarah Waters – The Little Stranger”

  1. I was completely underwhelmed and disappointed by The Little Stranger. I still can’t believe it made the shortlist. I am happy for Sarah Waters but part of me is irritated because I’m unsure whether she knows if her fan-base feel let down, even if the critics and judges don’t.

    I read Fingersmith in ’06 and I still felt that this was lacklustre in comparison.

  2. I was also disappointed by Little Stranger. I enjoyed reading it, but Fingersmith was in a different league. I am also confused as to how it made it onto the Booker list. The writing didn’t seem to be anywhere near as good as the others. I urge you to try The Glass Room – it has a great plot and beautiful writing. I’m sure you’ll love it.

  3. Not your top tip for winning the Booker then?

    I have also read some glowing reviews of this book (by lay readers, not industry.) I think the smart move under the circumstances might be to read Little Stranger first, and then move onto the ones which are thought to be better…

    • I have just finished this and very much enjoyed the first half but felt that the second half of the book was a let down and a bit dreary really – almost as though it was too long and no realy surprises despite the ending!

  4. @Claire : I haven’t read enough of the longlist/shortlist to figure out where it stands, although I did think that both, The Wilderness and How To Paint A Dead Man were superior. This is really poor in light of Fingersmith, but, I just can’t decide if I’d have liked it more or less had I not read Fingersmith. I haven’t read enough by her, but, I am going to give a couple of her other books a shot.

    @Jackie : I don’t think it was a “literary” book, but, after The White Tiger winning last year, I’m not sure that’s a very big criteria. I have The Glass Room lined up, as soon as I finish Summertime. I can’t wait to read it, after hearing you rave about it :)

    @Sarah : Personally, I’d be quite disappointed if this won… specially, taking into account that FIngersmith was merely shortlisted. You’re right about reading The Little Stranger before her others though – would be interesting to see how the book stood, without being compared to her previous books.

    @jacqui : Thanks for stopping by, and commenting on my blog. I agree with your statement. I also found that some of the dialog and events were all too predictable, which was a bit of a shame.


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