Book Jacket Smack Down!
Which cover is more likely to make you pick up "The Little Stranger"?
The Brit version on the left? Or the Yank take on the right?
Have you ever read Sarah Waters? She's one of a handful of authors that due to my bookstore employment I feel as though I discovered. Do you have authors like that? Authors who you have followed since their first quiet book? You read that first one and fell in love with the storytelling or writing style--- something-- and started putting it into friends and customer's hands while you impatiently waited for the next book? Sarah Waters is one of those writers for me. I feel very proprietary and protective towards her books. --I didn't mean that to come out so much like a warning, but I'm not unhappy that it did.
All of these titles have been enjoyed by me and lovingly forced onto others by me:
Tipping the Velvet 1998
The Night Watch 2006
And now in 2009 there is--TA-DA! The Little Stranger.
On the page turning surface "The Little Stranger" is a ghost story. I have to say seeing that description on the book jacket stopped me in my tracks. I'm no reader of scary tales, Flower. Scooby Doo cartoons make me nervous. I am a certified, sleep with the light on coward. I do not want creepy thoughts and scary images tucked away in my brain files ready to pop out at me at any time. But... Sarah Waters is one of my pets so onward I pressed.
"The Little Stranger" could be called a follow up to the wonderful "The Night Watch". In Night a group of desperate people struggle to survive WWII London. There the war was the main character. It drove all action and decisions. In Stranger the war has ended but it's power has not diminished and the ghosts it left behind are many.
The novel is set in a rural community in England. The national anxiety of waiting for bombs to drop or news of loved ones has been replaced with the death of hierarchies and the worries that massive social change brings. Those changes are especially strong in the Great Houses across England. In the book, Hundreds Hall is the former grand estate of it's neighborhood. It is now a shabby, barely hanging on wreck of a place. The great family is still living there: Mrs Ayres clinging to the past like grim death, her war damaged son, Roderick and her war missing daughter, Caroline. They have economized to the point of austerity. Half of the house is shut down, land has been sold off, they are attempting to keep the farm viable and have let all but 2 of the servants go but with the Labor Party ruling the day and the family's inability to adapt Hundreds Hall seems to be doomed to extinction.
Into this very contained world comes our narrator. The classic Victorian ghost story bachelor, Dr. Faraday. Set in his ways, slightly woman hating and socially unremarkable. Dr. Faraday isn't the sort who ever would have made it into the Ayres's circle in their glory days. He is the middle class on the doorstep of his betters. His Mother had been a maid at Hundreds Hall in her youth and his father a shopkeeper. Both of his parents sacrificed to raise him above his station. Faraday carries with him enough inbred British class system romanticization that his acceptance by the Ayres family into their world is the ultimate success for him. He is flattered, ready to worship and agonizes over each setback the family endures. This and his unshakable belief in science makes the veracity of his narration suspect and adds to the drama of the story.
Ghosts abound in "The Little Stranger". Each reader will decide whether or not there is an actual haunting at Hundreds Hall and as I have an aversion to giving away plot and will not go the spoiler alert route here is where my descriptions of the action and the characters ends. As for the other ghosts? The Ayers family is haunted by their past riches, snobbery, lost ambitions and the illusions they had about themselves. Dr Faraday is haunted by his own failures and the spector of the incoming National Health Service which could cost him his hard won rise in social standing.
Sarah Waters is always a great storyteller and always challenging herself. She has mastered the intricately plotted Victorian novel, the Merlin-esque ending to the beginning construction of "The Night Watch" and here the ghost story. Ghost stories follow a form. An innocent taken over by malevolence with an operatic finale. "The Little Stranger" does not marry itself completely to that template. Sarah Waters has not written a make you jump tale of terror. She has written a restrained, controlled, creepily suggestive novel about all kinds of hauntings. In fact the grand finale of the novel we are not even witness to. It takes place off stage with no witnesses and is all the more unsettling for that.
There are also touches of other classic things here like "Great Expectations" and "Rebecca" but don't think that this is not a unique work for all of the trappings. This is a sublime novel by a gifted writer that I discovered, sort of...
P.S. I prefer the Brit cover. The Yank cover I feel as though I've seen too often and it reads too English county house murder to me. The Brit cover successfully captures the 40's period and creates an intimacy that US cover lacks.