The BBAW — and a recent vacation together, during which we did little but talk about books — reminded Teresa and me how much we enjoy the collaborative nature of this blog. We decided, therefore, to do a joint review of Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, which has been shortlisted for the Booker prize and which was on both of our TBR lists. It turned into a conversation, and I hope you enjoy it as much as we did!
Dr. Faraday was only a child when he first saw Hundreds Hall, a rambling Georgian house in Warwickshire. Now a physician in postwar England, he’s called there again, to find that the house and gardens have deteriorated almost beyond recognition: the Ayres family, who have lived there for generations, don’t have the money or resources to keep the place up. The house and family — mother, son Roderick, and daughter Caroline — exercise a curious fascination on Faraday, and he slowly gets to know them better, trying to help them face the financial and personal challenges they’ve been left with by the war, despite his own reservations about whether he belongs there.
But there are more problems than just a lack of servants or faulty plumbing. There is something else at Hundreds Hall. Something that seems determined to find the vulnerabilities of the Ayres family and play on them, something that wants them isolated and slowly maddened to despair. A hungry thing. A little stranger. And Dr. Faraday’s life seems to be entwined so closely with the Ayres family’s that he can’t — or doesn’t want to — get free.
* * *
Jenny: I’ve read several of Sarah Waters’s novels — Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, and Fingersmith— and enjoyed them all. But this one stands out above them all for the vivid, sensual nature of the prose. I noticed even in the first few pages that I could “see” Hundreds Hall, smell the woodsmoke in the air, feel the humidity, hear a dog barking. The dialogue, both internal narration and spoken, was absolutely pitch-perfect. I thought Waters’s writing was immediate, and exquisite, but without losing any of the urgency of the story. And what a story!
Teresa: This was my first Sarah Waters novel, so I can’t make any comparisons with the rest of her work, but I do agree with you about the quality of the writing. Her descriptions of Hundreds Hall reminded me of the descriptions of Manderley in Rebecca. In both cases, the grand house becomes almost a character in the story. In The Little Stranger, though, the house’s status as a character has more significant implications than it does in Rebecca.
The thing that impressed me initially was how Waters handles class issues and how the role of class was changing in the 1940s. It’s sometimes rather subtle, as when Caroline asks Dr. Faraday to call her Caroline early on but says that she will continue to call him Dr. Faraday. As a nursery maid in the house, Faraday’s mother would never have referred to Caroline by her first name alone, although she herself would have been known by nothing else. It’s a complete reversal, and it shows up again and again, in how the characters relate to each other, in how the house is falling apart as new council houses are going up nearby. You really get the sense that we’re looking at a turning point, not just for the Ayres family, but for the whole of English society.
Jenny: I think the class issues are really at the heart of the novel (among a few other major points I’ll get to later) and I think your point about Rebecca is dead-on. Of course The Little Stranger makes references to Rebecca in dozens of ways — I won’t call it an homage, because it’s quite different, but from details like Hundreds Hall’s long twisting drive bordered with rhododendrons to the fact that the narrator doesn’t ever have a first name, Rebecca is always present. And therefore the other issues of that novel: class, madness, murder.
The big difference, of course, is that Rebecca takes place in a different England. It was published in 1938. The second World War, along with its financial strain, rationing, bombing, women’s independence, and decimated population wasn’t even a bad dream yet. In The Little Stranger, that war is an ever-present ghost. Pardon the phrase.
Teresa: Right, and all those events you speak of have had a huge impact on the characters’ fortunes, but even with those changes, the past is there too. The Ayres (that is, the “heirs”) have Hundreds Hall tying them to the past, and Dr. Faraday (“fairer day”), who has actually benefitted from the collapse of the class structure and the rise of the middle class, is bound to the past by his own desires. They’re all haunted by the past in one way or another, which raises the question of what exactly was going on at Hundreds Hall.
The rest of our conversation includes speculation on what was happening and discussion of the ending, so read on only if you don’t mind spoilers.
Jenny: One thing I loved about this book is that it genuinely kept fooling me about what was going on. I’ve read a lot of novels, and a lot of ghost fiction, and I can usually figure it out about a third of the way in at latest. But this book was so complex and rich — tragedies, rage, frustration, sorrow, mystery, and just plain hauntedness coming from different people and different corners of the book — that I entertained at least five or six different possibilities before settling on my final analysis of what was happening. And I settled, I should say, in only about the last 70 pages.
My favorite theory for quite some time was that Caroline was creating the poltergeist activity (with or without knowing it.) She was such a strong character! I loved her matter-of-factness and the clarity of her vision, but her vulnerability too. It seemed the perfect combination of character traits for someone whose repressed personality was making trouble for her hated/beloved home and family.
Teresa: Caroline was a great character, and I agree that she was a logical suspect. She seemed to be keeping so much inside that it seems logical that it would be escaping somewhere. She had to be feeling some rage at not being able to escape in the way other women of her generation were starting to. But what do to with it? Especially since she did love her family and her home.
Like you, though, I didn’t settle on a definite belief until late in the book, maybe 50 pages from the end. I’m guessing, if you made up your mind toward the end, we settled on the same idea. The interesting thing is that it wasn’t at all obvious early on, but when it came to me, everything fell into place. Waters didn’t cheat; she set it up in the very first chapter, if you know what you’re looking for. From one tiny acorn… And that solution raises a whole host of other issues.
Jenny: Yes! (Which, by the way, also reminded me of Rebecca, with the narrator finding a postcard of Manderley when she was a young girl.) Some of the questions are, of course, logistical. The very first time we hear of the “something bad” that’s in the house, it’s from Betty (another logical suspect.) Dr. Faraday hasn’t been in the house at that point since he was a child — a little stranger himself. So was there something bad before he got there, or was it just Betty’s loneliness playing tricks on her? Which of the poltergeist’s pranks were real, and which were imagined, or the result of stress, or grief? Waters leaves a lot of this kind of thing up to the reader, and I honestly went back and forth a lot. Both solutions seemed extremely plausible.
Teresa: The thing is, if Faraday is the source of the manifestations, everything that he’s told us gets called into question. So we’re left wondering whether Betty first suggested the idea of “something bad” in the house, or whether he planted the idea in her head. Did Caroline ever really act interested in him, or was that just what he wanted? Was he controlling her, just as he controlled the poltergeist? Until the end draws near, we have no reason to suspect we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator, but the last chapter makes it clear he hasn’t been honest.
But even though I think that we’re meant to see Faraday as the one who brought the poltergeist to Hundreds, there’s a lot that’s left unclear. Did Faraday know what he was doing? If there is deception in his account, is he intentionally deceiving the reader, or is it self-deception? Ultimately, I think Faraday didn’t know what he was doing, but there’s an odd sense of victory in those last pages that make me wonder.
Jenny: There’s little I like better than that kind of ambiguity about motivation and reliability, as you know. In my opinion, the motivations of all the characters are blurred and mixed, beginning with every member of the Ayres family (Roderick, who hates his burden but longs to shoulder it well; Caroline, whom we’ve discussed; Mrs. Ayres, whose loss has overshadowed her other children, and who knows it to her own guilt) and ending with Faraday himself. It’s clear enough that he’s rationally repelled by the idea of the supernatural. In fact, I thought that was pushed maybe a smidgen too far — surely someone would have brought in the vicar, or at least suggested that this was something that might be fought that way? But his motivations aren’t pure and aboveboard, either. He’s far too interested in the house, for one thing. He wants to take possession, of the house and the family, and especially of Caroline (physically and personally) and all that means. And possession is just what happens.
Teresa: I find questions of narrator reliability to be fascinating, as long as the author isn’t tricksy about it (using it as a way to create a “holy shit” moment at the end or as an easy out if there are questions of coherence). And I agree with you that all the major characters have mixed motivations, including Faraday. Given his extreme negative reaction to the idea of the supernatural, I can’t help but wonder if he subconsciously sensed what was going on and that he was behind it. His manner at times is so desperate—he must find some other reason, he must get Caroline to marry him now. It is almost as if he has something to hide. Personally, I don’t think Faraday is ever intentionally deceptive, but I think he’s deceiving himself, and not always being as successful as he would like to be.
And that fact that Faraday does eventually take possession brings us right back to the idea of class. In modern, post-war England, who really has the power?
Jenny: Yes, absolutely, power is the question. The power of class — layers and layers of questions there, including money, education, heritage, and land (not all of these go with one class or another.) The power of gender: Roderick, for all his devotion to the cause, is probably less able to take care of things than Caroline, but it devolves on him because he’s the son. Caroline feels that England has nothing left to offer her, either as gentry or as a woman. And there was a part I actually bookmarked, when Caroline says, “Mother’s very good, you know, at hiding her feelings. All that generation are; especially the women.” There’s the power of good looks. The power of confidence and certainty. The power of healing. Dr. Faraday breaks with one hand and heals with the other.
In the end, I thought it all came down to Faraday’s rage and insecurity about his own background — that is, class. Every evil manifestation comes back to that. And it’s all reflected in the crumbling house, too, and even in bombed, torn Britain. Brilliant book, with this strange little germ at its heart. I just hope it doesn’t get classified as “ghost genre fiction” and filed away somewhere. How did you think this compared to the other Booker candidates you’ve read?
Teresa: I think it was a stronger book than The Quickening Maze, which is the only other short-listed book I’ve read. The use of language in The Quickening Maze is brilliant, but the plotting is flawed. Waters does both well. Like Brooklyn, which would probably tie with this for my favorite from the long list, The Little Stranger can be read and enjoyed purely for the story and the characters, but there’s more going on than you can see at first glance. Come to think of it, that’s what almost all of my favorite books are like. Wonderful on the surface, but with hidden depths. Whatever the Booker judges decide, that, to me, is the formula for a great book.
See additional reviews at Farm Lane Books, A Work in Progress, Twisted, The B Files, Paperback Reader (twice!), Savidge Reads, dovegreyreader scribbles, Harriet Devine’s Blog, Books to the Ceiling, Fleur Fisher Reads, KevinfromCanada, Beautiful Screaming Lady, and Compulsive Overreader.