What a disappointment. Sarah Waters is a best-selling author (The Little Stranger is her fifth although my first) who is, unusually, much lauded by the literary critics. Yet, this particular offering is somewhat vacuous and remote.
Set in 1947 Warwickshire, the Georgian Hundreds Hall has been in the Ayres family for more than two hundred years. But, like privileged pre-war gentry, the once stately manor is in steady, crumbling decline, the grounds choked with weeds, the family itself dying out. Old Mrs Ayres and her two adult children live in isolation, remote from the changing post war English society.
Struggling with the upkeep of their historic home, the family live in relative penury, with many of the dilapidated rooms in Hundreds Hall closed off. The only surviving male member, Roderick, badly injured in the war, struggles with the estate, supported by his capable sister, Caroline. Emotionally fraught, Roderick is on the cusp of a breakdown. But are there darker forces at play?
Into their now Gothic world walks Dr Faraday, a local GP who slowly becomes enamoured with the Hall and, over time, Caroline herself. Faraday inveigles himself into the family circle, particularly after Roderick is institutionalised. But is it the house that’s the root of the problem for the Ayres?
Waters is a superb writer and perfectly captures the decline of privilege in post-war England as the Labour government of the day introduced sweeping changes to the old way-of-life, including the Welfare State. But the story itself starts and stutters.
Is it a supernatural tale? A few bumps in the night, a few unexplained markings and sounds, a fire that finally tips Roderick over the edge? The pompous Faraday, as narrator, errs on the side of logic – constantly. Nothing moves him from blaming ‘nerves’. Yet things keep happening and the family is being bumped off. But by whom – or what?
That, I’m afraid, you’re never told. Or at least, you are left to your own imagination. That it’s an allegory of the killing off of redundant privilege is unarguable. But is ‘it’ more overt – the troubled unconscious of someone connected to the house?
The odd thing is that very little even happens ‘supernaturally’ until a third of the way into the book – up until then The Little Stranger is firmly in the historical fiction camp. And with its clipped, Brief Encounter style dialogue and conversation, it remains there, even when Waters attempts to move into the subtle, ambiguous psychological storytelling of the likes of Henry James (The Turn of the Screw). But The Little Stranger never reaches those Jamesian heights. There’s no suspense, there’s little tension – and things-that-go-bump-in-the-night happen all too infrequently over its 450 or so pages. And so by then, I’d given up caring and had somewhat lost patience.
So, for me, a poor introduction to the work of Sarah Waters – and therefore a surprise that it was shortlisted for the 2009 Booker Prize. But it lost out to the behemoth that was Wolf Hall and Hilary Mantel – so in some ways it was almost irrelevant what else was on that year’s particular shortlist!