Tuesday, January 17, 2012

THE LITTLE STRANGER/Sarah Waters


Dr. Faraday is a hardworking country doctor who has known The Hundreds Hall and its estate since he was a boy; his mother was a maid there for the Ayres family. Back then, the house was like many other English estates of its class: majestic and full and a bit awe inspiring. By the time Dr. Faraday is grown, however, the Hall and estate have fallen into disrepair, the victim of the new Labour party and its socialist ideas.

As an adult, he strays upon the house quite by accident—or so it seems to him. Because his partner is unavailable, Dr. Faraday goes to treat Mrs. Ayres—one of the last surviving members of the Ayres family—and immediately finds himself enchanted by the house again, just like he was as a boy. Soon, he becomes not only the Ayres family doctor, but a close friend of the family—particularly to Caroline, Mrs. Ayres’s daughter.

His fate becomes entwined with theirs—something he’s only too happy to allow to happen, since it allows him to see the Hall nearly every day. And here Sarah Waters shows us some of her skills, for Dr. Faraday seems completely unaware that he’s mostly motivated by his obsession for the Hundreds estate. As “the little stranger” makes itself known, he explains everything away as only a doctor of that time could.

And here’s more evidence of Waters’s skill: the incidents really can be explained away in rational terms. Even in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, there’s a clear supernatural element. This novel is subtler. Because the story is told in first person from Dr. Faraday’s point of view, we are told of the scary incidents second-hand, so each incident hinges on interpretation. After awhile, you begin to feel that perhaps you’re not getting the whole story from Faraday, that he’s shading the telling ever so subtly in favor of showing each individual of the Ayres family as mad.

This way he doesn’t have to take responsibility for his part. While it’s clear Faraday truly does care immensely about the Ayres family, he’s completely unaware that he cares about Hundreds Hall more. The more disturbing things get, the more he tries to explain everything away—which is actually scarier than the little stranger itself.