Sunday, 16 August 2009

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters remains in the late 1940s for her latest work, which revolves around a country house, Hundreds Hall in Warwickshire, the Ayres family who live there, and their doctor, first-name-less Dr Faraday, whose mother was once a housemaid at the Hall and who has traversed, but not forgotten, several social boundaries. Initially called to the Hall to treat the current housemaid Betty, the doctor gradually develops an intimacy with Mrs Ayres and her adult children Caroline and Roderick. Through this friendship, and his uneasy romance with Caroline, he becomes party to various strange events at the Hall; a fire, rappings and knockings, writing appearing on walls. The Hundreds Hall he remembers from his boyhood is decaying before his eyes, the estate mostly sold off, rooms closed up and paper peeling away. Dr Faraday is the voice of rationality in the book as the Hall's inhabitants become increasingly convinced that the odd events are supernatural in origin, but he cannot prevent tragic consequences through rational argument. I'll try not to spoil the ending for those who have yet to read the book.

Although Sarah Waters has returned to a chronological narrative order for this novel, there is still much that is interesting in her narrative choices. Dr Faraday, as first-person narrator, is often absent from the strange and unsettling events at the Hall. Sometimes he hears about them directly from witnesses, so the reader encounters them in Caroline's voice, for example; at other times he recounts them himself, using reportage that increases the reader's distance from the events themselves and ratchets up the sense of ambiguity. His narration of the uncanny is flat and scientific, highly reminiscent of the dry academics who so often narrate the ghost stories of M R James, but - the uncanny aside - the lives he depicts are generally flat and limited, with few options in a period of deep austerity and financial constraint. The first-person narrative and the focus of the novel on a house are something of an homage to Rebecca, but there are other similarities too; the influence of a long-dead character, the awkwardness of Faraday as his friendship with the family grows, and his increasing power and agency as the mysterious events pile up. I wondered if the choice of a doctor as narrator was a hint, given the famously unreliable narrator of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd; when I went to hear Sarah Waters speak about this book, however, she suggested that a doctor was chosen because he would have access to the house and permission to ask impertinent questions. His position as the voice of material rationality - during the course of the novel he conducts a research project and writes it up for presentation at a conference - is also an effective contrast to the variety of levels of belief in the supernatural he encounters at the Hall.

Every book I read at the moment seems to be partly about class, and this is no exception. Of working-class stock, Faraday has moved through several social classes to get a grammar-school education and then qualify as a doctor. The seriousness of his mother's final illness was kept from him to ensure his studies were undisturbed, and his move into middle-class professionalism damaged his relationship with his father irreparably. His later transition into friend of the Ayres, and would-be lover of Caroline, proves equally disruptive and damaging. For the Ayres, Faraday personifies the rapid social change of post-war England, but he is also affected by it; the nascent NHS is both a threat and an opportunity for him. The Ayres are trapped and tormented by their social role as they attempt to preserve it in impossible circumstances. The barriers of class infect the narrative, limiting the freedom of conversation and preventing Faraday from asking questions, and the Ayres from giving away family secrets.

It's probably not giving anything away to say that the end of this novel is ambiguous; readers can draw their own conclusions. Is the Little Stranger a genuine manifestation of the uncanny, of shared hysteria, or of individual neurosis? Is Faraday's interest and influence on Hundreds Hall benign, or does he somehow contribute to the sinister happenings there? What of Betty the housemaid, convinced that the house itself is somehow bad? I have my own theory, and you'll probably have yours too.

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