Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Little Stranger (Review)

Ahead there be spoilers.

I have eagerly read each and every one of Sarah Waters' novels (my fave continues to be Fingersmith) so a source of genuine frustration became the length of time it took to get ahold of her latest, The Little Stranger.

For the first time, no lesbian characters (although Carolyn...well...). For the second time, a non-Victorian setting. Also for the second time, a story having to do with ghosts. Or a ghost. Or something like a ghost. Maybe.

I think a lot of Americans don't appreciate what a horror the second world war was to Britain, how much was destroyed, how huge a percentage of the populace were more-or-less in the fight and suffered accordingly, or how long privations continued even after VE Day. I barely realize it. This book brings that period to life (or death as the case may be), the years after the war when there weren't enough places for people to live and the rationing of food, sugar, coffee, clothes and fuel continued for years.

Hundreds Hall is a Georgian mansion in Warwickshire, the home of the Ayers family (nice pun when you think about it, as in "giving oneself"). It is haunted. By what? Well, by the past certainly. Its inhabitants don't seem so much to live there as to haunt the place. Very old-fashioned are the Ayers family. From a different time, and coping not all that terribly well with a new world. And maybe the Hall is haunted by something else. What? We don't really know. Nor do we ever definitely learn.

Two other books came to mind as I finished The Little Stranger. Since finishing it I've glanced a few reviews and seen references to the exact same two. One is obvious -- The Turn of the Screw, arguably the best haunted house story ever (although methinks Shirley Jackson could give Henry James at least some competion there). One can easily see why. The lonely single person entering into the odd world of an old family estate, an employee who observes/learns about some of the tragedy in this manor, and cannot help but impact things by their own personal issues as they become involved. In the end, amidst more tragedy and even death, we are left without really knowing whether the ghost or ghosts were real. Now, which story am I describing? Both. One is about a governess. The other is about a physician. Each deals with a family unit of three, including a parental figure as well as two siblings--a brother and sister. In Waters, these are adults, confronted not with the mysteries of childhood and imagination but the gnawing despair of feeling trapped. Trapped by the house, mostly, by trying to maintain its upkeep and live up to traditions crumbling around them.

Honestly, though, this book also brought to mind Daphne DuMarier's Rebecca, about an unnamed narrator (we never do learn Dr. Faraday's first name) who enters via marriage a beloved but strange manor, one also haunted but in this case by genuine memories and dark secrets. Max de Winter reminds me in a lot of ways of Roderick Ayers, but the latter is physically scarred as well as much younger and without the fortune (i.e. comfort and security) to help maintain his emotional defenses.

When in reading novels, we see a single man meet a single woman early on, the possibility of romance drifts to the surface. So it is with The Little Stranger and if it takes a long (albeit realistic) time to develop, it also feels natural as well as achingly foolish for both people involved. Dr. Faraday, our narrator, is a doctor from a working class background whose mother once worked at Hundreds Hall. Literally, the book begins with an act of casual vandalism he committed as a child -- the stealing of carved acorn from the wall. Years later, as the whole country tries to start over again after six ghastly years at war, Dr. Faraday visits the Hall once more. He comes in an official capacity, as the Ayers report one of their (few) servants is feeling ill. Now the doctor meets all three remaining members of family:

Scarred, highly strung veteran Roderick.

His somewhat ungainly but likeable sister, Carolyn, with her beloved dog Gyp.

Their kindly but firm (as well as fragile) mother, still secretly mourning the death of her first daughter decades past from diptheria.

And the story recounts what happens over the next year. By any measure, it is a tragedy, and on many levels. One thing we're introduced to very early is the idea that there's something "wicked" in the Hall, or so the teen-aged maid Betty insists. Nobody pays her much mind, of course. Save the readers. But should we? Keep in mind one of the first things Dr. Faraday figures out is that Betty isn't really sick at all, but simply acting out (as a child does) a personal conflict between the spookiness of this place, her desire to be away from home, her fear of a new place, etc. In other words, she is suggestible and not that honest (although she seems to genuinely like the Ayers, especially the mother as time goes on).

What is really going on here? On one level, it seems straightforward enough. Waters herself said somewhere (I think) that 1947 was a terrible year, full of unhappiness for nearly everyone. In that year, the last members of this particular family deteriorate in the face of a world they don't really understand -- a world where breeding means less and less, where great wealthy has evaporated and new shapes of society create confusion. Roderick, unable to handle the stress, has a total breakdown and ends up confined, drugged to be kept docile. His mother, her imagination takes a dark turn into the past, believing her long-dead little girl wants her to join her and finally stage manages a fairly grisly suicide. Carolyn, seeking a change of some kind, any kind, falls prey to the same delusions for a split second and falls to her death.

But even without ghosts, there is more. One of the most uncomfortable series of events in the novel is the "courtship" of Carolyn and Dr. Faraday. Trained in the ways of strict rationality, he can find himself privately considering whether some Little Stranger haunts Hundreds Hall, but in word and deed he insists upon being the Voice of Reason (note the capitals). He listens to all the baffling weird details Carolyn notes, but in the end dismisses them -- even after the dizzying discovery of how much the two are attracted to one another. But like everything else here, even that is not what it seems. Is he really attracted to her, or at least how much is he attracted to the idea of her? He tries to push her in what seems like a good direction, but in the end pushes her away. Yet it is also true that she began it. She was the one who (perhaps rightly, let us be honest) wounds him so terribly by agreeing to a marriage then calling it off very abruptly (he himself missing far too many clues about her ambivalence). His pain is real. Certainly some at least of his feelings for Carolyn herself are genuine.

But might he be the catalyst, the one who "sets off" whatever strange power that may (or may not) be attacking the Ayers? More than one person points out this "ghost" or whatever it is, behaves childishly. It doesn't plan so much as play. It it exists, it can be and is distracted. But what is it? Might it be Mrs. Ayers long-dead child? She certainly thought so. No one else did. Is it a spirit given shape by the psyche of someone in and around the Hall? Or, by more than one? Carolyn points out It seems different to each person, latching onto personal chinks in their mental armor. Dr. Faraday has mixed feelings about the family, although he regards them as friends. He holds to his duty as a physician, seeing the whole world through the lens of such -- in fact, he even breaks his solemn word in the name of that duty (and Roderick never forgives him -- neither, perhaps, would I). Yet when the mask slips -- under stress and humiliation and panic -- Dr. Faraday reveals a dark side. It isn't pretty. But understandable, oh yes.

One walks away from the novel with the feeling that Dr. Faraday is somehow more a part of events at Hundreds Hall than he allows himself to suspect. It isn't that he's a bad man. He is in fact a good one, a kind man, if not terribly remarkable in most ways. There are passions there, but he keeps them muffled up. And at the end, he is certainly the one haunting Hundreds Hall--or being haunted by it. Or both. Three years after events, he still has his keys to the place. No one lives there. He comes by and sweeps things up a bit. Sits down and listens. Ponders. Wonders. Comes up with no answers, none at all. Every now and then he thinks he catches a movement out of the corner of his eye. He turns and looks.

What he sees when he does so -- well, how telling is that really? And if it tells anything, what is that something being told?

I don't know.

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