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Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Little Stranger

Waters, Sarah. The Little Stranger.

Put The Fall of the House of Usher, The Turn of the Screw, and Wuthering Heights into a pot and stir. Add the author's particular point of view and personal intentions, bake at 463 pages and out comes The Little Stranger.

If you've read any of the above, you will immediately feel the connection with Poe, James, and Bronte: a huge old house in decline; a narrator who is both unreliable and somewhat removed--distanced in some way from the other characters; a brother and sister; a ghost and/or curse and/or anthropomorphism and/or psychological disturbances; and definitely ambiguity, doubt, and uncertainty.

Who is "the little stranger"? What caused the fires, noises, and other mysterious and tragic occurrences? Even after finishing the novel, you aren't sure. Waters has carefully avoided a solution, and almost everyone and everything is suspect. Do the events indicate the supernatural, human projection, a combination of both? Echoes of The Turn of the Screw...

Set in rural post-war England, the story also delineates the social changes that have been in play since World Wars I and II. Grand old families and estates are no longer so grand or financially secure and many find themselves struggling to keep things together. The Ayres family is one of these; with insufficient funds to maintain house, grounds, and servants in the manner of pre-war times, they make every effort to save what they can.

The changes in social relationships are also difficult. The working classes are still burdened with traditional attitudes toward the upper classes, but are finding themselves less dependent. Attitudes of superiority and inferiority are still there, of course, but there is a burgeoning recognition of the changes that are occurring.

The author avoids letting the reader feel strongly about the characters; the reader becomes an observer, but doesn't necessarily feel attachment to any of the characters. The novel evokes curiosity and suspense, while somehow discouraging personal involvement. The many inconsistencies and uncertainties keep the reader from committing whole-heartedly to Dr. Farraday or any of the Ayres family. Unsure of where things are heading, the reader tends to reserve judgment.

Shortlisted for the 2009 Booker Prize, the novel is worth the read, but will be enjoyed more by those who can tolerate ambiguity because Waters, like Henry James, leaves things open.

Although I have a feeling about what caused most of the problems, there are a few events that just can't be explained and appear to contradict my opinion. This is a slight difference from The Turn of the Screw where nothing appears to directly contradict and all avenues are of interpretation are possible. Unless our narrator was even more unreliable than I thought...

I enjoyed the novel, but liked Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale more.

Fiction. Supernatural? Mystery? Suspense. 2009. 463 pages.


  1. I had this out from the library last month and really wanted to read it. I just ran out of time before it was due. Phooey! I'll get it again sometime.

  2. I loved this book, much more so than The Night Watch, but it's still not my favorite Waters. I know it's sad but my memory of TTT is so dim that I honestly couldn't say which one I enjoyed more. I definitely loved the ambiguity of the novel - it made it so much more interesting than a straightforward ghost story.

  3. I own this book but haven't read it yet. I am looking forward to some more Waters when I find the time!

  4. This is a such a perfect description. I want to read it immediately. I have heard of Sarah Waters before and I have Nigh Watch, still unread, but your review has made me want to get to her more quickly.

  5. I've been seeing a lot of gushing reviews about this book, and a lot of comparisons to The Thirteenth Tale, which I loved. I must look out for this one.

  6. sassymonkey - :) I hate it when that happens! Oops, my books are overdue. Another fine to pay, but well worth it!

    Lesley - This was my first book by Waters (although she has been on my TBR list for some time). Don't know which I'll read next!

    Kailana - There is never enough time, is there? All those wonderful books out there and never enough time to read them all.

    Nicole - I plan to read more of Waters and Night Watch is on my list.

    Hazra - I liked The Thirteenth Tale much better for several reasons, but I enjoyed The Little Stranger.

  7. I liked this, but definitely not as much as Sarah Waters's other books. Particularly The Night Watch, actually, which I had just reread before The Little Stranger came out. I'm excited to see what she'll write next, though!

  8. Jenny - Waters has certainly earned a great many devoted fans! I'll move The Night Watch up on my list!

  9. This sounds like fun and perfect for the Halloween time of year.

  10. I'm not sure I'd enjoy the detached approach to reading a novel. Luckily, there are plenty of other books on the pile for me to not miss this one. Very well written review, Jenclair. I'm amazed at your ability to compare so well to other books.

  11. I keep trying to read Waters and keep failing. Somehow she doesn't engage me and I haven't been able to see where my friend's enthusiasms come from. This is sitting on my shelf waiting to be read even as I write. Will I? Won't I? I'm as open ended as the writer herself.

  12. Thank you for your thoughtful review, Jenclair. I recently received this from a generous blogger and am anxious to read it. I do like ambiguity in the right setting--it doesn't work with every type of story, but it some cases, if done well, I really appreciate it.

    I have yet to read a Sarah Waters book and am looking forward to giving her a try.

  13. Stefanie - It would work well for Carl's RIP Challenge, which sadly, I didn't participate in this year.

    booklogged - It isn't my favorite approach for a longer novel, but for a short story like Poe's or a novella like James' it works well.

    Ann - I'm going to try her again because I've read so many positive reviews. My opinion isn't sky-high on this one, but I did want to keep reading.

    LF - Ambiguity is unsettling, but it does keep you thinking and wondering. I often enjoy it just because of the discussion it engenders!

  14. I often enjoy ambiguity of the James type, and so I think I'd like this one. The combination of books you list at the beginning sounds just great, so you're definitely getting me more interested in reading this book!

  15. Dorothy - James handled the ambiguity better because any of several interpretations remain viable. I felt blocked by some of the events in The Little Stranger...can't explain it exactly, without spoilers, but she appears to both encourage and block certain interpretations. Still, an interesting read.