Friday, December 14, 2012

Musings: The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger
It's been a while since I read a Sarah Waters book, and I had a feeling that her writing style would translate brilliantly to audiobook format.  I hit the jackpot with the audio recording of her eerie Gothic novel The Little Stranger, which is part ghost story, part social commentary, part psychoanalysis and all-around ripping good story.

The narrator is Dr. Faraday, a rural surgeon in post-WWII England who becomes acquainted with the Ayers family of Hundreds Hall when called in to see the house servant, who complains of a violent stomach ailment.  We learn early on that Faraday has a low tolerance for nonsense, as he frankly (and accurately) tells the maid that she is making up her illness and that he cannot treat her for homesickness.

As Faraday begins to interact more and more with the residents of Hundreds Hall - the charming widow Mrs. Ayres; her damaged war veteran son, Roderick; and her plain but kind daughter, Caroline - readers learn of the shabby genteel manner in which the Ayres live.  There is no money to pay for the Hall's upkeep, and the pressure of finding a way to maintain it is wearing Roderick down.  After a freak accident occurs at a small party, the Ayres family begins to fall apart.  And there is Dr. Faraday to narrate their story, and his, to us while it happens.  And readers see in full horror the unraveling of a family and of a man intimately associated with that family.

I should have known that Sarah Waters would throw me for a loop right near the end of this book.  That is just what she does, as I know from reading Affinity and Fingersmith.  And yet when I got to the end, I was completely blown away by what was implied.  It's amazing how well Waters can write a story - the seeds she plants, the clues she offers, the little things that don't come all together until the very end.  And then everything clicks.  Or does it?  I still don't know.  Luckily for me, most of the internet doesn't seem to know what happened, so this makes me feel that at least I am in good company for all my confusion and general !!!!!!-ness about the book.

But, of course, there is more to The Little Stranger than just the ending.  It's a hefty book, and it touches on so many interesting themes.  The one that came through most clearly for me was the gradual decline of the English upper class.  In fact, this book has really motivated me to read the book The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, which I've had on my shelf for years.  Hundreds Hall is just one of many grand old homes that is falling into disrepair, its beautiful parkland being sold for housing estates, its Regency furniture invisible beneath holland covers, and its servant hall nearly empty.  So much of this story is about Britain's attempt to become a more egalitarian society - it's emphasized not only in the decline of the house, but also in Dr. Faraday's growing obsession with the Ayres family.  Does he think that he is now on equal footing with them?  Or does he want to overtake them?  Who really knows what Dr. Faraday wants?

I admit that I didn't particularly like any of the characters in this book.  Dr. Faraday was alright at the beginning, but then he became quite sanctimonious, and then he became unhinged, and that got quite disturbing.  Roderick was more a symbol than a person - he not only symbolized a man without a real purpose, now that all his money was gone, but he also was very damaged from his time in the war, and that came out more strongly than his personality did.  Caroline - well, Caroline wasn't very interesting to me until the very end when she finally stood up for herself and what she wanted, but until then she was more of a wallflower.  I liked the servants, and I really liked Mrs. Ayres, but they had smaller parts in the story.

This isn't really a frightening book to most people, I'd say.  I admit that I was frightened by parts of it, especially keys showing up in the middle of unmarked snow, but I don't think this was written to be a scary story.  It was more about the way in which our feelings and thoughts and actions can seem normal to us but purely malevolent to others.  Mrs. Ayres feels guilty about losing a child.  Roderick is angry about his inability to keep up the house.  Caroline is nervous about Dr. Faraday but doesn't know why.  Dr. Faraday tries to keep everyone safe, but seems to just push them further away.  It's scary because of all the good intentions that go so horribly awry here, and the consequences that those extremes can have.  You end the book feeling quite unbalanced and unsure of yourself.

The audiobook version of this book was absolutely fantastic.  I highly recommend it if you have a long (very long - the book clocks in at around 15 hours) car trip or flight coming up for the holidays.  It keeps your attention riveted!

23 comments:

  1. I loved this book and it kick-started my love affair with Waters' novels. I really liked the ambiguity of the ending and spent ages trying to figure out exactly what happened - still not 100% sure though. Everything happens slowly and you begin to realise that no all is at it seems. Wonderful!

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    1. Yes, I have The Night Watch on my shelf to read, so I think I'll be looking forward to that one! Don't know if she has many other books that I haven't read yet, so I wonder if I should save it for a while...

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  2. I'm ashamed to admit that I have yet to read Sarah Waters...I've been toying around with buying this book for ages, but I've been looking for a change with my audiobooks lately and this actually might be the ticket. I love that gloomy, brooding atmosphere that it seems her stories always have. I prefer listening to audiobooks on my evening runs and the one I'm listening to now doesn't motivate me to get out there. This one, however, just might make me go for those long runs much more often!

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    1. Have you seen that commercial with the guy who goes running to Moby Dick? And then downloads War & Peace? That's what I'm imagining for you!

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    2. Yes! The US marathoner (can't recall his name now), but that is exactly how I enjoy my runs. Although, I don't go anywhere near the distance he goes, I piddle around with 4 or 5, and the longest I've done was 8. And that was painfully dealing with the audiobook I'm trying to finish now. I think I'm going to have to go for a few more long runs so I can finally get done with what I'm listening to now (Mr. Churchill's Secretary) and then I can get on with something a little more up my alley.

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    3. 8 is quite impressive to me! I do the treadmill for 3 miles and am very ready to be done at the end of that time! I've never run to an audiobook, though - I've done podcasts and enjoyed those, so maybe I'll try audiobooks going forward!

      I'll be sure to avoid Mr. Churchill's Secretary going forward :-)

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  3. I've read all of Sarah Waters' books now and enjoyed them all, but this is one of my favourites. I don't know how scary it was intended to be, but there were definitely parts of it that scared me, especially the scene in the nursery with the speaking tube!

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    1. YES! That was truly terrifying. And the shadows outside the door...

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  4. This was the first of Waters's books that I read, and I still think it's my favorite, mostly because of that chilling realization toward the end. I ended up feeling that I knew who was behind everything, but I couldn't make up my mind about all the implications of it. For instance, how aware is this person about what's going on? How deliberate is it? Lots to chew on.

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    1. I know! You're right - I suppose I DO feel that I know who was behind everything, but like you, I wasn't sure how much he knew. And was it really him or really some subconscious part of him? How much control was exerted? Really scary.

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  5. I think this would be marvellous as an audio-book -- I found it quite spooky (if not scary), and that would translate well into the spoken word.

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  6. This was the first Sarah Waters book I read, and months later I'm still ambivalent. Which I think is a good thing :)
    What really interests me is the way so many people reading the book seem to lament the end of the bog house. Now maybe I'm alone, but personally, whenever I see a big old house I always think how many people had to suffer & be kept as the underclass in order for that house to be built and maintained. The decline of the aristocracy is, to me, a positive. Not that anything worthwhile has replaced it of course...

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    1. It's funny that you say that because this book inspired me to finally pick up The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, which I've had forever but haven't ever read. I thought it would be a good companion, and it is.

      I think the decline of the aristocracy, though, is different than the end of the big house. Whenever I see an old home (or church or school or anything), I always think about all the lives that were changed there, and how many people passed through the doors. That's what makes me sad when they're gone - just a little piece of so many people's lives, taken away.

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  7. I really need to get to this book. I have it on my TBR. It's been ages since I read Sarah Waters! I am sure the audio would be fun, too, but I haven't mastered actually listening to audio books...

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  8. I'm sadly out of Sarah Waters books until she finishes the one she's writing. This one is still my favorite because of the subtleties. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

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  9. Great post! I really liked this book and now have some of Sarah Waters' other works on my TBR list!

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  10. I think you're right this isn't a scary book, but I love the ways it's creepy (distinct from scary!). The little things that make up the haunted house-y aspects of the book are exactly creepy enough. Sarah Waters.

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  11. Yes, this was a wonderful audiobook! I didn't know anything about the story before listening, and it really sucked me in.

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  12. This book has been on my list for years. :-) I need to remember to look for the audiobook version.

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  13. I haven't read a Sarah Waters yet, but everyone has been recommending them that I need to try one of her books. The Night Watch and The Little Stranger are the ones I'm most interested in.

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  14. I've heard a lot of people say that they didn't like the characters in this book. I'll have to see for myself when I read it...someday.

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  15. I love running across reviews of this book because I was so thoroughly impressed by it. It seems hit or miss with people because of the slow build and the ambiguity, but those were exactly the things I loved so so so much.

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