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.