Saturday, December 4, 2010
REVIEW: "The Little Stranger" and others
This story starts with golden, hazy recollections by village practitioner Dr. Faraday of his sole encounter as a youth with a fabled local manor estate, Hundreds Hall. Unfortunately, the reality of the present day is not so rosy. By chance, and later by habit and fascination, Faraday finds himself bit by bit becoming entwined in the everyday life of the Ayres family.
They still retain their position as longtime gentry of the countryside, but over the years the estate has been eaten away until its footprint encompasses only the grounds of the house itself, an adjoining park, and their struggling farm nearby. Mrs. Ayres remains as lovely and gracious as ever, but her two children, now grown, show the signs of their post-war struggles to maintain the property in spite of the times. The labor of keeping up appearances has reduced them to the point where their personal appearances hint at a certain eccentricity, as niceties are replaced by necessities.
I found it very easy to get pulled into the strange vortex of the world of The Little Stranger's characters. As the book starts, the reader settles into post-WWII Britain, where everyone lives with the ghosts of not only the war, but also of the way England lived before the war. The tension between then, now, and in-between is palpable, and the pain it causes the Ayres family and Dr. Faraday is at times raw, pushing everyone's to their breaking point as they attempt to maintain the "proper" British facade at all costs.
It takes a while for the really eerie part of the story, the title's haunting, to kick in. By that time, you're sailing along thinking you're safe in these staid, British seas. Well, keep brewing that hot tea and stocking up on biscuits, because you won't want to put the book down once the story kicks into gear. I won't give any spoilers here.
His debut novel, The Ghost Writer, shares with The Little Stranger a lingering sense of the post-war years in Britain. It is fundamentally intriguing and the ending ... well, perhaps you should just read it for yourself. The text is set up so that it is interspersed with short ghost stories written by the narrator's lost Victorian ancestor, a real treat for someone like myself that has a soft spot for supernatural fiction tidbits tied in with an intriguing, overarching storyline.
There is an excellent discussion by Shade Point, with links leading to others, of The Little Stranger's narrative and the controversy that has been swirling around Waters' storytelling methods that I highly recommend to the curious and to those who have read the book already: