Monday, 1 June 2009

The Little Stranger


I have been hesitating over writing this review because I am loath to admit, even to myself, how disappointing I found The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. I was warned but I still hoped and the hype I created for myself was perhaps my own downfall. Not since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows have I anticipated a book being published and counted down the days. The anticipation of the book was exciting but the reality of the book itself a disappointment.

From the dust-jacket: "In a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to a patient at lonely Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the Georgian house, once grand and handsome, is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, the clock in its stable yard permanently fixed at twenty to nine. Its owners – mother, son and daughter – are struggling to keep pace with a changing society, as well as with conflicts of their own.
But are the Ayreses haunted by something more sinister than a dying way of life? Little does Dr Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become entwined with his.
Prepare yourself. From this wonderful writer who continues to astonish us, now comes a chilling ghost story."

Its premise is intriguing but it doesn't live up to the expectation. My problem is that I wasn't terrified or chilled or felt much in way of suspense and there was no resolution but an ending that was anti-climactic. I can see what Waters was attempting to achieve, a haunting story that defied an explanation or one that was solely rational or supernatural, but in the end I didn't care which and felt that she didn't either; it was almost as if she couldn't make up her mind and gave up without falling on either side, her ending too subtle. Her arguments for the rational were dry at times and Dr Faraday's scientific approach irritating. All in all, I didn't care for any of the characters much as they weren't likeable. I did enjoy how she anthromorphised Hundreds Hall and ultimately it was the only character I remotely identified and even symathised with.

I admire Waters' writing and her skills as a historian -the era is evoked well, as are the class distinctions- but the plot was too linear and simplistic for me and I would have been more forgiving if there had been a twist in the end. I appreciate that Sarah Waters is experimenting with new periods and new forms -as is her right- but I think that she was too bogged down in ghost story tropes to actually achieve a successful one herself. After reading The Woman in Black so recently, The Little Stranger paled in comparison, and not from fear.

For a digested account of The Little Stranger, this is amusing (beware explicit spoilers).

eta: my redux post of this book can be read here.

16 comments:

farmlanebooks said...

I agree with you - I was very disappointed. I was looking forward to this book so much that I even ordered a copy from America - just to get it a few weeks earlier. I was more disappointed by the simple storyline. I was hoping for some clever twists at the end, but there weren't any. Such a let down.

I'm going to concentrate on waiting for Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins instead!

verity said...

I've already written about this, but I was disappointed too :( I think it was worse because it had been hyped so much.

Paperback Reader said...

I think we were victims of our own anticipation and personal hype; it was so unfortunate. As I was reading I wanted more and the big twist and when they didn't come it was even more of an anti-climax. Thoroughly disappointing.

verity said...

I've been wondering if Sarah Waters is a bit like the Daphne Du Maurier of our age...there's lots of parallels - gripping books that people anticipate (but some are more successful than others), set in lots of different times and places, good literary fiction, and of course published by Virago!

Paperback Reader said...

That's occurred to me too, Verity!
I wonder if she sees the comparison and perhaps struggles with the burden of expectation.
One of the things I enjoyed about the book, as I mentioned above, was the rendering of Hundreds Hall as a character and Manderley is possibly one of the most vivid depictions of a house in fiction.

verity said...

Ooh yes, DDM is SO good at place - The king's general for example. I am desperate to visit Menabilly one day.
I'm glad it wasn't just me with that comparison in mind.

Paperback Reader said...

No, it wasn't just you! It was very well done and one of the few things from the novel that has stayed with me ... I thought that SW could have done so much more with it instead of just hinting at the House's malevolence and its resentment of the family for its decline.

I too would love to visit Menabilly - have you read Daphne by Justine Picardie?
I've just commented on my latest blog post that as yet I have only read Rebecca by DDM and despite it being my favourite novel for going on fifteen years I have never read another DDM novel; I'm hoping to rectify that soon as there are so many. I do worry though that loving Rebecca so much will result in disappointment, as has happened with SW and my love for Fingersmith.

verity said...

I loved that book - reading it was one of the highlights of last year's holiday in Cornwall.

I'm afraid you will be disappointed by the rest of DDM, with the possible exceptions of My cousin Rachel, Jamaica Inn, and Frenchman's Creek. (These are probably accepted as the best). But I loved I'll Never Be Young Again, and somehow even though they weren't quite as good, I wanted to read the rest of them; the only one I've got left is Hungry Hill.

Nymeth said...

Oh no! Three disappointed Sarah Waters fans :( Now I'm a bit scared to read it. I'll focus on The Night Watch and Tipping the Velvet for now.

Paperback Reader said...

Hopefully you'll enjoy those; Tipping the Velvet was my first Sarah Waters and I really enjoyed it.

verity said...

I finally got around to reading the magazine that comes with the Saturday Times last night. There was an article about icons chosen by gay people, and the first person was Sarah Waters. She had a big picture, in front of her books - and I was pleased to identify about 6 Persephones stacked together. But the reason I'm mentioning it is that she chose Daphne Du Maurier as her personal icon/inspiration. I've looked for the article online but I can't find it. I was fascinated though to see her acknowledging her influence which we'd spotted!

Paperback Reader said...

Ooh! I read a comment by someone who had attended an event of hers recently and she also commented on Du Maurier and her influence on this books.

I am beginning to think that there is also an intentional reference to Rebecca with the inquest ... that there is something insidious beneath this.

Reading a few complimentary reviews recently I have thought that perhaps I really did miss something, that I gave the book too linear a reading and expected Sarah Waters to spell out the explanation in a shocking twist, without appreciating her subtleties. I had the slightest of impressions when I read it, but now I am more convinced, that it was a supernatural/astral projection explanation, and that the "you" that Caroline voiced is the big clue.

verity said...

I would love to go to a Sarah Waters event and she's coming to the Woodstock Festival in September, so I hope very much to go. Although I missed the second Oxford Persephone bookgroup last night :(

Paperback Reader said...

She is great to see in person and very humble and open to sharing her passion for literature with fellow readers.

That's a pity about the Persephone book group :(. Do you read the Stuck in a Book blog? Simon attends the Persephone book group.

I am visiting the Lamb's Conduit Street branch today! It's a week to late but better too late than never. I am going to attempt to restrain myself to one book and their lovely book bag.

verity said...

How exciting - very envious. I am in London next week so I must see if it might be feasible for me to go (although I am not buying books at all).

Yes, I do read Stuck in a book, and Simon is actually a student at the college where I am assistant librarian. He said the group was interesting. I was sooooo disappointed not to get there, and would have gone if had just had my usual level of not-feeling-well, but I'd come home from work early completely incapacitated :( Third time lucky perhaps? I missed Princes in the Land, and the next time is Alas Poor Lady which I have on my tbrbc.

Paperback Reader said...

It's a small world!

Hopefully you will feel well enough to attend the next one. I haven't read Alas, Poor Lady (nor do I have it tbr) but I enjoyed The Brontes Went to Woolworths.