I got The Little Stranger for my birthday! And read it on the plane back home yesterday. Not a good plane book; I should have read Changing Planes, which would have been much better, but by the time I thought of it, it was the last leg of the flight and I was trying to catch fifteen minutes of sleep so I wouldn’t die of exhaustion. The Little Stranger would be a perfect dark-and-stormy-night type of book. (Not that there’s any book I wouldn’t want to read at night all cozy with a thunderstorm outside – but some are more suited to it than others.)
The Little Stranger is about a Dr. Faraday who goes round to minister to a servant girl called Betty at The Hundreds, an old aristo house now peopled by its three remaining family members, Mrs. Ayres and her grown son and daughter Roderick and Caroline. The Hundreds is coming down around them, and they are all doing their best to keep it up and running. Dr. Faraday becomes more and more involved in their lives, while around them the house is delicately, gradually, driving them all mad.
You can see the influence of The Haunting of Hill House on this book, although it’s quite dissimilar to that. I was mildly disappointed in the house’s tricks. I felt like they didn’t always give you that spine prickle, particularly as the book was being narrated by a man who never saw any of these antics, but only heard about them afterwards. However, the rest of the book, the characters and the things they all did, more than made up for it. As is always the case in Sarah Waters’s books, the interactions between the characters are the best part of the book. These are fully realized characters: you always want to see more of them, and the things they do are the things they would do (does that work, as a description? I mean that even when they’re doing or saying unsympathetic or unexpected things, they continue to be who they always were).
This is a very British book – actually, I think, the most British of Sarah Waters’s books so far, the first book that it would really, really have surprised me to learn an American had written it. I read a thing about British and American humor one time, how Americans like for their comedy shows to move from disorder to order, whereas British comedy shows tend to be of the sort where everything just goes spectacularly to hell (Fawlty Towers is a perfect example of this). The Little Stranger is all about decay and breaking down – the house itself and its dying protests, the traditions of and belief in the aristocracy in Britain, the relationships of the family to each other and Dr. Faraday, and so forth. Everything breaks down. It’s sad, and Sarah Waters imbues the book with a sense of the inevitability of it all.
The servant Betty provides an epitaph to the whole thing when she says “It wasn’t fair, was it, what happened to them?” I loved this. It wasn’t fair. They didn’t deserve it. They didn’t deserve the poltergeist, and they didn’t deserve to be the ones on whom the burden of holding up the British aristocracy fell.
And what a gorgeous last sentence it has!
And as soon as I closed it, I started to whine inside my head about when is she going to write her next book, I really want to read her next book. But you know, she just wrote one, so it’ll probably be a few years yet before her next one after this shows up. Here are other views:
Tell me if I missed yours!