Wednesday, February 24, 2010

But was it a stranger?

The book The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters is meant to be a spooky, atmospheric ghost story, set in a crumbling old stately home in the English countryside. The "action" is glacial and the characters are frustratingly repetitive in their actions, so that the story quickly lost any spooky flavor for me.

The events in the novel take place in the years immediately following WWII. Dr. Faraday, a 40-something bachelor, is called out to the stately home, The Hundreds, to treat a new maid, 14 year old Betty. He quickly deduces that the girl is suffering from homesickness and unease at being alone at night in the cold, damp basement area of the house. She tells the doctor on this first visit that there's something bad in the house. Of course, the doctor dismisses any such nonsense (as he continues to do throughout the story) and basically tells Betty to grow up and stop her foolishness.

He then becomes acquainted with the owners of the house, the Ayers family, which has fallen on hard times (hence only having the one maid). The widowed mother lives there with her two children: Roderick, who was injured in WWII and Caroline. Both children are unmarried, in their 20s, and somewhat isolated. It also emerges that there was an older child, Susan, who died of diphtheria before her siblings were born.

Due to Roderick's injured leg, Dr. Faraday becomes a frequent visitor to the house, working on an experimental treatment to help Roderick regain movement. He is invited to a social gathering at the house which turns out to be held for the purpose of introducing the plain Caroline to an eligible bachelor who is new to the area. It is at this party that the first of several tragic events happens in the house.

This is where the story begins to break down. The reader is treated to exhaustive narrations of "strange things" that happen in the house, but that turn out to be not much of anything really (when we finally get to the point). As members of the house become convinced that there is something haunting it (although this thought is never so succinctly put into words), the doctor continues to treat the entire idea as ludicrous. The Ayers family begins to disintegrate, but it never seems to occur to anyone that they should, oh, I don't know, go away to the seaside for a change of scenery for a few days. You'd think that if you truly felt there was an evil presence in your house, the first thing you'd want to do would be to distance yourself from it. But no, everyone just keeps a stiff upper lip and carries on with the work of being haunted. {yawn}

So this goes on for a while until the inevitable crisis happens. Even after the final events play out, the doctor is still reluctant to believe that there was anything unusual going on in the house. So, really, what was the point of the story? If it was a real "ghost story," we saw precious little of the spirits. If the people living there were simply going quietly insane (as the doctor seemed to have thought), they surely took their time about it.

Oddly, Stephen King apparently named The Little Stranger as his favorite book of 2009. Strange indeed.
Final verdict for The Little Stranger: Two gherkins, for a promising start, but an overall disappointing story

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