Saturday, December 4, 2010

REVIEW: "The Little Stranger" and others

After a spate recent recommendations from friends, I picked up "The Little Stranger" for a try, and in this way had the uneasy pleasure of finally reading my first Sarah Waters book.

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.

For me, this book aligns itself with others I've read in the last couple of years that harbor an obsession, mild on the surface but running deep, with lost family property and the feel of the land and its old houses. Those who enjoy The Little Stranger, and like a story with an undercurrent of the supernatural, will likely enjoy these too. Both books I am thinking of are by author John Harwood.

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.

Harwood's second novel is the one I read first -- The Seance. It was the first Victorian pastiche I've read in a long time that felt real and sincere -- in other words, truly seemed like something written long ago, with more solid underpinnings than modern make-believe. Tremendously haunting, and full of deeply-felt gothic undertones, the book is also rich with compelling mysteries and characters that will keep you turning the pages long after dark.

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:

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