The Little Stranger--Sarah Waters

I may as well have it out with you up front.  I think I am disappointed by this book.  Having only finished it last night, it may need to linger on the intellectual palate for a while to see if there is some aftertaste, so prolonged note that pulls it from others in the same vein, but my instinct suggests that there is not.  So, know as you read that one end of my reading is a slight disappointment.  The other end, though, was a real pleasure in a story well-told and in writing that is solid, compact, allusive, subtle, and rich.  Sarah Waters writes beautifully.    I would seek out her other books but for the subject matter--none of the others has any allure for me from a distance--reading the blurbs and sampling, I've yet to find anything that would compel me through it.  And so, therein lies the delight of reading The Little Stranger I finally have accessible subject matter.  Perhaps enough so that I can revisit earlier work and now enjoy it more.

The Little Stranger is a subtle ghost story in the mode of Turn of the Screw or The Haunting of Hill House  but, as a ghost story, or an amibiguous tale of psychological suspense, it is not nearly so good as either of these.  Hundreds Hall is a stately home in Warwickshire that has seen better times.  The local doctor was once a resident of the guest house as his mother was part of the "help" that the house maintained in better times.  Having grown up and attained his medical degree, he returns to Lidcote to practice medicine and is drawn into the house and the family.  The house, naturally enough for a book of this type, attracts, develops, or otherwise manifests a ghost of a particularly malignant nature.  And the story ensues--madness, mayhem, and "Fall of the House of Usher" all rolled into one glorious and luxurious novelistic exercise.  Unfortunately the novel failed to resolve in a satisfactory fashion for me.

One thing that the story convinced me of is that the ghost story (a subgenre of dark fantasy or horror) is probably best sustained at a minimal novel length.  The length of this story, while excellent for family saga or realistic novel was just too great a span to sustain much in the way of suspense.  While reading I encountered several longeurs and spent a good deal of time frustrated with the Doctor and with the young lady he takes up with.   And perhaps this frustration upon examination will resolve into something more--taking on a more robust and heady fragrance in the overall impact of the novel.  But again, I don't think so.  Unfortunately, for the type of story this was, there was simply too much story.  All of it well told, but very little of it particularly compelling in the way a story of this sort must be.  Too much time lapses with too few indications of what is going on.  The reader begins to ask, have we an unreliable narrator?  Is the patchwork that is stitched together a deliberate play on reader's expectations?

Perhaps.  But if so, it was too long a play, and the book resolves, for me, rather flatly.  I'm left with only one question and that one it seems, admits of too easy a resolution.  Who then is the ghost that haunts this hall?  Or is it not a ghost but an "infection" a "contamination?"  And if the latter, what is the source?  I have resolved these questions to my own satisfaction;  and each reader will, but I think it was the relatively easy resolution that disappoints.

Disappointed as I was in the treatment of genre, I have to backtrack and say how delighted I was in the treatment of language.  Normally, I would have tossed aside a genre book that was moving at this pace.  But I was able to put aside the notion of genre and read for the sheer joy and delight in the language.  And it is from that perspective that I feel I can unreservedly recommend this book to everyone's attention.  Ignore the genre--this isn't the next step in the development of the ghost/suspense story.  This isn't, in my opinion a particularly strong contributor to genre fiction.  It adds nothing to what has been established by James, Onions, James, and Jackson.  However, it does add to the annals of good stories well told.  Read it for the writing, read it for the beauty of the language.  Read it for the reality of the characters  (characters who can make you feel frustrated, but in whose reality you still invest are a sign of being able to create characters vividly).



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