Sunday 18 July 2010

Stranger and stranger...

One of the fun side-effects of Project 24 (although not as frequent as I'd hoped it would be) has been reading books which have lain neglected on my bookshelves for quite a while. And one of those was The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, lent to me by lovely Curzon a long, long time ago... (and which has now become #14 on Project 24, because I accidentally tore some pages, and bought Curzon a replacement copy, keeping the original... oops! Not my usual style, promise.) It seemed the perfect sort of thing to take away with me on holiday, staying in rambling old houses converted into Youth Hostels. I read most of it in Grinton Lodge Youth Hostel, which looks like this:

So - atmosphere: check.

Everyone in the blogosphere seemed to be reading The Little Stranger around the time I was on holiday last year. I, on the other hand, was reading things by Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Taylor, Janni Visman... well, better late than never. Still, there must be one or two people who are later than me in reading The Little Stranger, so I won't assume universal knowledge...

Waters, who made her name with Victorian novels (including the only I'd previously read: Affinity) has been moving steadily nearer the present, and The Little Stranger is set just after World War Two. All except the first scene, which is much earlier - the protagonist is a little boy being snuck into Hundreds Hall by his mother, who is a servant there. He loves the house, and wants to take a souvenir - hacking a plaster acorn from a corridor. From little acorns...

Next we see, the little boy has become Dr. Faraday and is heading out to Hundreds Hall because the (now sole) servant Betty is complaining of illness. Turns out she just wants to get away from the house for a bit - because she senses things are wrong. Quite how they're wrong, she doesn't specify; but something is wrong. But this incident leads Faraday to an increasingly close intimacy with the family - plain, unmarried Caroline; her brother Roderick who is recovering from a nasty war injury, and their dignified mother, simply Mrs. Ayres. Faraday is excited about being able to visit a house he has admired since childhood, and Hundreds Hall is certainly a powerful presence in the novel. Its former glory, and its current decay, are realised wonderfully by Waters. It's something of a truism to say that 'the house is itself a character', but you have to take your hat off to Waters' ability to invest Hundreds Hall with this power without it becoming a caricature of Gothic literature. The house remains comfort and terror; mystery and simplicity; homely and unhomely.

For soon Betty's claims that something's wrong seem to be true. A party is held (Mrs. Ayres' is trying to set up Caroline with a neighbouring bachelor) where a young girl is savaged by Caroline's usually docile dog. At the same time, Roderick is experiencing ghostly goings-on in his bedroom...

I'm not going to spoil the ensuing events, but suffice it to say there appears to be a 'little stranger' creating all sort of havoc for the Ayres family. Since The Little Stranger is narrated by Faraday, we often aren't 'present' for the events, but Waters does a simply brilliant job of relaying them later (usually a big no-no for writers) without losing the tension. And this is quite a scary book. I've not read many scary books since my Point Horror phase, and perhaps a slightly creepy old Youth Hostel wasn't the best place to read this novel... I was a little scared to close my eyes.

Waters has suggested that The Little Stranger is primarily about class issues - as Faraday rises from the servant's son to a family friend, and can't get over some of his lingering resentment; similarly, the grounds of Hundreds Hall are being sold off to modern estates. Waters has even said that the ghost story element was a later addition. I'm glad she did, because novels which centre around class issues can be very tiresome if not done well, especially if they're retrospective. I prefer contemporary novels ('contemporary' is such a frustrating phrase... I mean contemporary-to-the-period-described, rather than contemporary-meaning-modern) which don't feel the need to hammer home how awful middle-class pretensions were, or throw their hands up in horror at the idea of servants. Waters doesn't fall into this trap, but I fear she'd have been nearer to it had the ghost-story element not crossed her mind.

For the most part, The Little Stranger was brilliant. You know me and long books, but I read this in two or three days; got up early to finish it, etc. etc. Waters' writing is pacy and compelling without sacrificing style, and I am really keen to read more by her. True, there was a little bit of a drag between p.100 and p.200, but only a little - and the second half of the novel flew by.

And then... the ending. Which I obviously don't want to discuss in detail. Close your eyes and sing la-la-la if you don't want even the remotest spoilers, but... I was disappointed and confused in about equal measure. And I shan't say more than that. I just wish Waters had given the novel a different sort of ending - if she had, then A Little Stranger could have been one of my favourite novels of the year, possibly the favourite. As it is, it might make top ten, but only just. Possibly very clever and cunning, but... disappointing.

More or less everyone seems to have reviewed this, so I suggest you do what I did and search for it in Fyrefly's incredibly useful Blog Search Engine. But I will point you to this excellent discussion on Shelf Love: be warned, it is spoilerific.

Books to get Stuck into:

Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier: Curzon reminded me how appropriate this would be as a companion read, and it's the book I *always* recommend to people when they ask for reading ideas. And it's Simon S's favourite novel! No review on Siab yet... but see Simon S's enthusiasm here.

The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson: my favourite American writer is definitely the Gothic side of horror, and rarely has the power of the house been drawn so chillingly or convincingly.


  1. I'm so glad to hear that you enjoyed this! As you know from my discussion with Jenny (and thanks for the link), I loved the ending, but I know plenty of people who didn't. The book doesn't rely on that ending for its strength.

    I've since read two other of Waters's books (The Night Watch and Fingersmith) and loved them both. For me, she has everything I look for in a writer. Riveting storytelling, excellent use of language, compelling ideas.

  2. I also loved this book, though slightly less than The Night Watch which I think is Waters' best. I just read the discussion on the link you gave and I agree with the general conclusions of the discussion in the spoilers section though can't say more here, obviously.

  3. This was the first Sarah Waters book I read and while I loved it, I didn't feel it was her best work. So far Affinity is my favourite, I have 2 more to go. I loved the ending as well. I felt gobsmacked and as though I had just had a huge moment of realisation. I didn't see it coming right until the very last line!!

  4. I actually hadn't heard of this one but I'll be on the look out for it. Your youth hostel does have the atmosphere! It looks like the perfect place to read The Mysteries of Udolpho, or like you said, a DuMaurier. :)

  5. I've read all of Sarah Water's books and enjoyed them all. However, I agree with you about the end of this one. I was left disappointed and dissatisfied. My book group discussed this recently, but I had to miss the meeting. When I asked someone later about the concensus, she said that everyone had been disappointed and let down by the ending...

  6. Add me to the list of those very disappointed by the ending of The Little Stranger. I felt like I had been led to expect something "important" at the end, and because it was so... (spoiler ahead!) inconclusive, I had a feeling of "So what?!" about the rest of the novel.

    I have also read The Night Watch and really enjoyed that one. The way Waters played with time was very intriguing. I could not put it down.

  7. I loved this book, but I'm a Warwickshire lass and also completely obsessed with post-war "state of the nation" fiction, so it was bound to float my boat. I enjoyed the ending and it came as a satisfying surprise to me. You may enjoy this article from the Guardian by Waters. I share her feeling's on Tey's "Franchise Affair" and can see how Tey's novel was a starting point for "The Little Stranger."

  8. Thank you for such a wonderful review! I have read, and loved, all of Sarah Waters' books, but I can't help but agree that the ending of this was slightly disappointing, and not what I hoped for. For me, you can't beat Waters' Victorian novels!

    Interestingly, I read so many reviews recommending Rebecca (in a 'if you liked 'The Little Stranger' try 'Rebecca' kind of way) as well as it being a good friend's favourite book that I went straight on to read that and it was absolutely wonderful. Bundles of atmosphere and utterly sinister.

    I've only read 'We Have Always Lived in the Castle' by Shirley Jackson and thought it was brilliant. I do enjoy books that have that sense of a gothic fairy tale. I might save 'The Haunting of Hill House' until the evenings start drawing in...


  9. Sounds perfect, and as I just read 'Rebecca' I might take up your suggestion and make it a perfect companion!

  10. I love Sarah Waters so much! She can create atmosphere like nobody's business, and I love it that she turned her atmosphere-creating hand to a haunted house story.

  11. I am yet to read the Little Stranger so don't worry, you're not last to the party. Your holiday looks great, by the way - love the look of that hostel. And Rebecca is an absolute favourite of mine - and probably also good for reading in remote and slightly ethereal locations.

  12. I didn't initially enjoy this book as much as I hoped that I would. I actually think it was probably the hype I placed upon it before I had even opened a page as I do love Sarah Waters and think she can be genius. It felt like a slog in some parts and the ending, which I now think is really clever and has stayed with me, really annoyed me at the time. Its grown on me since though!

  13. Hi Simon, I have stayed at Grinton Lodge and yes it would be quite a place to read a ghost story. Alas, such stories prey so very much on my mind, and even though your review and others reviews make me very curious, I just can't do 'super scary'. What a wimp I am. Oh well, I'll just get on with my Jane Austen rereads...

  14. I enjoyed this one too and I feel exactly the same as you do about it probably making my top ten but maybe not. Yes, there could have been a bit more clues in the end. It was very open-ended. We discussed it at my book group and everyone had different interpretations about what really happened.

    Give Fingersmith a try. It's a great read!

  15. Teresa - I'm looking forward to The Night Watch soon. This novel has really stayed in my mind... Waters is a fab writer.

    Harriet - I must definitely read The Night Watch then! Should have got my parents to bring it up on Tuesday... but I'm sure it'll wait til Christmas.

    Elise - the last line just confused me, so I'm glad it was a moment of revelation for you!

    Susan - gosh, yes, something incredibly Gothic would have worked well there...

    Penny - I'm glad it wasn't just me being confused! I'd love my book group to read this, so we could all properly thrash out the ending...

    Bet - I'm definitely impressed how Waters make fairly long books very compelling.

    Dulce - thanks for the link! I grew up in Worcestershire, so it was vaguely local for me.

    Alison - isn't Rebecca brilliant? And We Have Always Lived in the Castle is my favourite Shirley Jackson (of the three I've read) but Haunting of Hill House is closer to The Little Stranger in terms of tone.

    Daniel - anything will seem worse after Rebecca, but I still think they'd make fantastic companion reads.

    Jenny - I *must* read more by her - I have a feeling she'd turn into a favourite author if I did.

    Jane - you're making me want to reread Rebecca now... and yes, Youth Hostels so often provide stunning buildings and locations for very little money.

    Simon - maybe it'll grow on me too, eventually!

    Merenia - have you stayed there, how nice! But, yes, this was at the very extremities of what I can cope with, in terms of scaryness.

    Mrs. B - Fingersmith, ok... (is that one of the ones I have? No idea!)


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