Wednesday, June 2, 2010
Review: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
This book isn't one I would have chosen for myself but since it was a gift and I was curious, I read it. I found it difficult to get into but I was interested enough to stay with it until something finally happened that meant I had to finish and figure it all out. Well, I've finished it but I'm still puzzling over it.
The blurb calls it a ghost story and it is set in postwar 1940s England. The main character is actually an old crumbling estate called Hundreds Hall in which the last members of the family live in extreme poverty. Mrs. Ayres is every inch a lady who tries valiantly to keep up appearances. Her son Roderick has returned from the war damaged badly both physically and emotionally, and he is overwhelmed by his task of running the farm on the estate and keeping up the mansion. Her daughter Caroline is the picture of country gentry, a plain-looking spinster hiding her hands which show all too clearly how much housework she does herself. They have a day cook and a live-in, teenage maid named Betty who is afraid of the house.
The narrator is Dr. Faraday, a bachelor with a small office in a nearby village. One of my problems with the book was my inpatience with him. For a supposedly smart doctor, he was so clueless as to be unbelievable, and emotionally crippled by his resentment and shame because of his lower class background. His mother had been a nursemaid at this very house.
The story of the Ayres family is told movingly; you simply must feel badly for them as they struggle to survive. Caroline is strong and capable, but later in the book I became extremely impatient with her as well. Actually each character is portrayed so well that you do begin to have a bond with them and that's what keeps you involved despite the way the story drags. Or perhaps I've been reading too many short mysteries so this more literary book seems longish to me.
I recommend this book for the use of language and the characterizations, and the way Waters imbues the mansion with a life of its own. It's portral of poor but proud gentry unable to change with the times as young couples buy tract housing all around them is an excellent illustration of an important factor of that period in English history. As for the plot, I'm still not sure. Maybe you will be more patient than me and really enjoy it.