Sunday, April 19, 2009
Sarah Waters/THE LITTLE STRANGER
A handful of years after the close of World War 2, an Oxfordshire family doctor returns to the manor where his mother once worked as a domestic servant. The Hundreds, as it's known, has fallen into disrepair as Mrs. Ayres, the widow of the Colonel who ran the estate, her son, Roderick, and her daughter, Caroline, have gradually run out of money. Dr. Faraday, eager to be of service to the family and house he grew up revering, befriends the family at the beginning of what is to become the unluckiest year of their lives, as the house is beset by freak accidents and nearly uncanny unfortunate coincidences. As the mess evolves, Dr. Faraday and the Ayreses try to reason it all out--is it just the old house falling apart? Sabotage by a member of the family or a spiteful servant? A poltergeist? Or something much more sinister?
This is Sarah Waters's fifth novel, following the World War 2 ensemble drama The Night Watch, and the Victorian literary romances Affinity, Fingersmith, and Tipping the Velvet (although to describe them as such is humorously reductive). For the first time, however, Waters has chosen not to include any lesbian themes in the novel, which is (one assumes) why The Little Stranger is being billed as "her most accessible to date" (from the press release).
If The Little Stranger broadens Waters's fan base, all the better. The writing is, as always, wholly engrossing and realistic (at times frustratingly so). In my opinion, Waters's most appealing strength lies in her tireless attention to period detail, and her ability to work said detail effortlessly and unobtrusively into plot. In many ways, The Little Stranger is a return to Waters's Affinity momentum--a Gothic novel with a slow-developing, heavily detailed first person narrator and highly deliberate plot, its eerie eye turned toward the supernatural and the supposed supernatural. The effect of The Little Stranger is much like that of Affinity--cumulative; almost gruelingly temperate and mundane throughout the long text; devastating after you've closed the last page and the implications coalesce.
The Little Stranger must have on some level been a deliberate homage to Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca: the awed working-class background narrator hypnotized by the grandeur of a fading estate (like the heroine of Rebecca, Dr. Faraday lacks a first name); the slow, psychological suspense of trying to preserve a way of life that has clearly passed.
My closest recommendation is for people who liked Michael Cox's The Meaning of Night. This is a similar period suspense piece, and a rather rewarding one.