Friday, November 12, 2010

Book Review - Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
Published by: Riverhead
Publication Date: June 4th, 2009
Format: Hardcover, 466 Pages
Challenge: Historical Fiction
Rating: ★
To Buy
Hundreds Hall has always had a special place in the heart of  Doctor Faraday. Ever since, as a young boy, his mother snuck him into the servants quarters to see where she once worked he has been obsessed, wanting to posses some of the house for himself. Thirty years have passed since that fateful day and when a chance occurrence calls him to the house to look in on an ailing maid he leaps at the opportunity. Betty is now the only full time servant in the once great house, which is falling to ruin around the three remaining family members. The house was once vibrant and full of people and life, but now it is a mouldering pile of the England that was. Mrs. Ayres, Roderick and Caroline, with her dog Gyp, live a secluded life at the hall. Roddy was injured in the war and Caroline spends all her time helping him and the house. But with no money and no hope, the future is bleak. But here's Dr. Faraday, determined to help and make himself invaluable to the family. He agrees to help Roddy just so that he can worm his way into the lives of the Ayres. Soon he himself is a fixture at the house and his presence helps the Ayres open up a little. At a fateful dinner party Gyp attacks a young girl. The attack is totally out of character and costs the dog his life. But this is just the beginning. Soon there are weird burn marks appearing around Roddy's room, eventually culminating in a fire. In a rash moment Roddy confides in the doctor that the house has an infection and he has to keep this malevolent spirit at bay. Dr. Faraday, as a man of science, gets the family to commit Roddy. He can not bring himself to believe that ghosts or even phantasms, spirits broken off from living people, are responsible. With Roddy out of the picture, Dr. Faraday becomes the man of the house. Inveigling his way in till he is invaluable to Mrs. Ayres, but in particular, to Caroline. But weird things start happening again, strange noises, mysterious writing and there are a few incidences with Mrs. Ayres. What really is happening at Hundreds Hall and can Dr. Faraday, the son of a maid, force himself into the world of the gentry through sheer will and persistence?

I don't think I can adequately state how disappointed I was in this book. I was looking forward to a spooky post war period piece the likes that Wilkie Collins or Charles Dickens might have written. With comparisons to The Turn of the Screw I was hoping for at least a modicum of eeriness. But instead I had hundreds of pages with an unlikable narrator and one or two minor "supernatural experiences" that weren't in the least bit scary. Plus there was NO PLOT and NO RESOLUTION. Now, I know The Turn of the Screw has an ambiguous ending, but at least something happened! One of two things can be inferred, she's insane or evil was present. Here, sure, we do have a bit of a body count by the end, but there is no hint as to how this happened. They're just dead and Dr. Faraday goes on in his little world of Hundreds worship. First I want to tackle the "haunting aspect" of this book. There is a gentle dog who attacks an annoying little girl who drinks at her young age and is herself repugnant. There are mysterious burns and a fire in an overstressed and chain smoking mans room. A few weird sounds lead to writing on the wall which is easily explained away. There are a few other things, but that would ruin the "surprise" if you were somehow lured into picking up this stupid book. Now, none of these events were scary. I have personally experienced things scarier than these mundane events that could be explained away by the remoteness of the family and how cut off they are from the world resulting in a high strung state of mind. So, right there, I fail the book for not living up to even a shred of the spookiness I was told about. But the main problem is Dr. Faraday. He is pompous, obsessed, forceful and just the littlest bit creepy. One inference you could make is that he is what is wrong with Hundreds Hall, because things start to go bad once he's on the scene. His veneration for this house and the world he could never have been a part of except for some fluke of timing verges on the psychotic. Plus, his obsession with becoming the Halls caretaker, be it inhabitants or brick and mortar, is just, again, psychotic. His insistence that he and Caroline become a couple, even telling people of their engagement, which we've never had confirmation of from her own mouth. Their first romantic encounter is nearly date rape and each subsequent encounter seems more and more like an abusive relationship. He bullies her into what he wants, and once she stands up for herself, bad things happen. I don't think I would hate this book as much as I did if it wasn't for the fact I feel so let down. The writing wasn't bad, the house, you can picture it perfectly, it's just the narrator and the non existent plot gave me a disgruntled and dissatisfied feeling that no one should have after reading a book, especially one read for entertainment. Plus, Dr. Faraday made me feel like I needed a long shower.


Spoiler alert!!

I too was disappointed with this book. This was the first and last Waters book I have read.
You came really close to explaining what was really going on. The little stranger was not who or what Waters led the reader to believe. It was the Dr! He was the "poltergeist". He wanted the house and was willing to do what ever it took to make sure it happened. Waters failed to make this clear, I was disappointed by this. It could have been as good as The Turn of the Screw, but some how she failed. As bad as the book is, it is amazing how much chatter it generated. Look for other reviews and you will find a lot of talk about the plot and the Dr.
Like you, I was completely creeped out him and hope to never meet someone like him.

I can certainly see why it has gotten chatter, I still have the feel of the book about me, all this time later. It's odd if a book that I dislike sticks with me so well. I agree, lets never meet anyone like the Doctor, EVER!

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