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April 25, 2010

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

So what is it about these stories, about outsiders coming up the drive toward the stately home that’s past its prime? Daphne Du Maurier, and the Brontes, and even more recently in The Private Patient by PD James. It’s the romance, yes, and the world’s colliding that is so fascinating to watch, the pervasiveness of the British class system too, and the way in which these homes are universes onto themselves, complete with their own rules, what happens when the rules start to change. And yes, there is no better backdrop for a mystery– so many places to hide, stuff to steal, secrets to reveal, skeletons in the closet.

The same elements are at work in literary mysteries (whether they be detective stories or ghost stories) as in any literary novel. The driving force of plot, the withholding, the twists, the reveal, the unreliable narrator, the atmosphere– these are the reasons we’re taken by any kind of story, but in mysteries there’s nothing subtle about the way we’re being handled. So mysteries are remarkable in being novels pared down to their bones, but even more remarkable is their power to leave their readers paralyzed with fear. Mysteries make clear what a powerful object a simple stack of printed page can be.

Sarah Waters’ latest novel The Little Stranger is the least historical of her acclaimed historical fiction, taking place post-WW2 in Warwickshire. Her narrator is Dr. Faraday, called out to the isolated Hundreds Hall to attend to one of the maids. “One of the maids! I like that,” says the young master of the house, Roderick Ayres, when he receives the doctor. “There’s only the one– our girl Betty.”

Ayres himself had come through the war with considerable damage, and the same can be said of Hundreds Hall– most of the house is shut up, the land is being sold off, the house’s contents being sold as well to raise capital. Throughout England, the age-old aristocracy is faring badly by the mid-twentieth century, particularly under the heavy hand of a tax-grabbing Labour government. For Faraday, such decline is an awkward paradox– his mother had been a servant at Hundreds years ago, and he remains conscious of the immutability of his class, though circumstances have changed so considerably.

Circumstances have changed so much that he has quite a bit to offer the Ayres’– Roderick, his widowed mother, and his sister Caroline. Faraday begins to perform a medical treatment on Roderick’s damaged leg, visiting the house regularly in the process. He becomes so close to the family that he is invited  to a small party at the hall– the party itself an anachronism– though his conspicuous presence does not go unremarked upon by the guests (“No one’s unwell, I hope?”). His presence is a blessing, however, when tragedy strikes and he is able to save the life of a young guest. And as a series of bizarre events begin to unfold, Faraday finds himself more and more non-expendable until his relationship to the family begins to consume his personal and professional life.

Is Hundreds Hall haunted by a poltergeist, or have its inhabitants been driven to mental illness by their surroundings? Is it the ghost of the Ayres’ first daughter Susan, who’d died as a child of diphtheria or is the house possessed by an even more malevolent spirit? Is Faraday’s ability to find rational explanations for what occurs at the house a sign of his own sound mind, or is he simply unwilling to acknowledge forces against which he is powerless? In fact, might his continued insistence upon those rational explanations be a sign that he might not be of such sound mind after all?

Faraday is a fascinating narrator, seemingly unconscious of his own role in shaping the narrative (both literally and circumstantially). The real story takes place beneath the one that Faraday tells, this made clear by Waters’ clever ending, underlining his complicitness in the story. Though the real story throws up far more questions than it answers, of course, Waters never entirely alleviating her book’s decidedly creepy and sinister atmosphere. There is no comfort there, no assurance, and the mystery never goes away, because nothing is fully explained. And it takes a masterful writer to create a narrative that so convincingly hangs like that.

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