Friday, November 19, 2010

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

I've been on a Sarah Waters kick ever since I picked up a couple of her books at a booksale. First I read Fingersmith, which was perfection. Next I picked up The Little Stranger, and although these are set in very different time periods (Victorian England versus Post WWII England) I can see that she has a distinct writing style. She's very descriptive, she keeps us a bit distant from her characters, and she infuses her books with foreboding and a constant creeping sense of dread. Bad things are coming people! BAD THINGS!!!

The Little Stranger introduces us to an upper class family who has fallen on hard times, their estate is literally crumbling down around them. Enter a country doctor who manages to insert himself into their daily life. The book is told from his perspective as he becomes friendly with the family and witnesses their complete disintegration.

From his point of view they are suffering from hysteria or mental illness as one by one they succumb to the belief that there is something evil in the house that wants to hurt them. We are never sure whether or not this is really true. Faraday, the doctor, does not seem to be the most reliable narrator. From the beginning, I really disliked him. It seemed distasteful to me how he insinuated himself into the family, I was never sure whether or not I trusted him. Did he just want to jump into a higher class? Or did he genuinely care for them? He was complex enough that I think either could be true, or both, and the author certainly never clears it up for us. But by the end of the book I was thoroughly disgusted with him and I hoped the house did him in too (spoiler: sadly it did not).

What the author did so well was create atmosphere and tension so thick that the reader is pretty much foaming at the mouth at the end wanting to know what it was. And perhaps wisely, we don't find out. during the last tragedy the character clearly recognizes the guilty party (be it ghost, poltergeist, or live person) but the reader is never privy to who/what it actually is. This frustrated the heck out of me because I WANTED TO KNOW!!!! DESPERATELY!!!

The book is excellent despite this, but note to the author: next time, just tell us. I hoped and hoped it would be the doctor and then all my disgust and animosity would be rewarded because he was the culprit and clearly it was ok to hate him. As it is, now I just have all this anger at him and I'm not sure it is deserved. Very unsettling, Ms. Waters, very unsettling.

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Book Source: Personal Copy