Thursday, 31 December 2009

Sarah Waters: The Little Stranger

Sarah Waters is one of the finest contemporary novelists - whatever she writes is a pleasure to read. Her plots are intricately thought out and her characters utterly believable. The Little Stranger is not as detailed or enthralling as Fingersmith or Tipping the Velvet, but still a compelling read. Hundreds Hall is the haunted grange of all our imaginations. It is the decaying relic of a dying way of life - symbolic of the fate of the landed gentry after two world wars and the rise of socialism.
Dr Faraday, the narrator, is a working class boy, raised to a higher social level by scholarships and education, but not entirely comfortable in the social no-man’s land between classes. His mother had been a nursemaid at Hundreds Hall before she married, so when he is called to attend a member of the household, he never expects to become on intimate terms with the aristocratic Ayres family.
His life becomes increasingly entwined with the neurotic, widowed Mrs Ayres and her two children - Roderick, heroically injured in the war, and Caroline - a young woman aging towards spinsterhood, trapped in her role as family lynch-pin. Sarah Waters has the ability to carry you into the minds and emotional centres of her characters. Faraday’s social ineptitude is beautifully done and his ingrained attitudes - so typical of the period - are toe-curlingly believable.
At the centre of the novel is a tale of gothic horror and psychological drama, which may or may not have a Freudian solution. It calls into question our whole attitude to mental health issues and the definition of insanity. The novel is haunted, not just by the paranormal manifestations of Hundreds Hall, but by all those eighteenth and nineteenth century gothic novels - Castle Rackrent, Northanger Abbey, The Woman in White, The Turn of the Screw and many others. But this is a post-modernist novel too and it turns in on itself unexpectedly, using the gothic conventions in new ways and playing on our twenty first century knowledge of psychology.
Sarah Waters is never tempted by the sentimental options. She charts the social revolution of the years immediately post-war - the birth of the NHS, the fall of the landed gentry, the rise of the middle class - and gives the story exactly the right ending. Dr Faraday’s fascination with the aristocracy echoes our own - the same fascination that funds the National Trust and keep the stately home industry going.

Faraday continues to visit the deserted hall in its progress towards ruin, hoping ‘that I will see what Caroline saw, and recognise it, as she did. If Hundreds Hall is haunted, however, its ghost doesn’t show itself to me. For I’ll turn, and am disappointed - realising that what I am looking at is only a cracked window-pane, and that the face gazing distortedly from it, baffled and longing, is my own.’

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