Monday, September 10, 2012

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

I've had The Little Stranger on my giant TBR pile since it was published in 2009.  I've been saving it for the perfect moment and The Estella Society's read-along, hosted in conjunction with Carl's RIP challenge, provided that perfect moment.

OH MY FREAKING LORD THIS BOOK WAS SUPERB!!!  I devoured the novel while making numerous notations and underlining like an undergrad English major. In fact, I'm only supposed to post about the first half of the novel this week.  Nope. Gonna post all my thoughts here at once.

The novel involves an impoverished aristocratic family (the Ayres), a doctor (Dr. Faraday), and a dilapidated English manor (Hundreds Hall) that may or may not be haunted. 

SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER-TASTIC POST AHEAD!  If you haven't read The Little Stranger then quit reading this post and get thee a copy of the novel straight away.... oh yes... you must cease reading this post; I'm about to spoil the entire damn story.

I was shocked when reading reviews of The Little Stranger on GoodReads; the book has only garnered just over an average of three stars and a great many of the reviews were less than stellar.  "Trudging."  "A second-rate Susan Hill."  "Dull."  "Stereotypical."  "Bored to tears."  WTF? Were we even reading the same book?

I think the crux of the frustration with other readers is that "nothing happens."  What they mean by "nothing happens" is that this is not a stereotypical ghost story, the plot isn't neatly resolved, good and evil are not easily defined, and the evil in the house -- The Little Stranger -- is never explicitly named.  In other words, one must work at this book, read carefully, consider sources, paint together a picture of events, and then draw conclusions and hope that those conclusions answer enough questions for you to sleep at night.

Who is the Little Stranger?  I am 99% confident I know the nefarious evil in the house and I will attempt to narrow down my 500 billion examples of "proof" to a few broad indications.  Okay....super spoiler ahead:

Dr. Faraday is the Little Stranger.

My book is underlined beyond belief and I have so much to say.  I've tried to narrow this down to several broad reasons:  1) Sarah Water's writing style, 2) other books reflected in this novel, 3)the tradition of the unreliable narrator, 4) historical indicators, 5) Dr. Faraday's psychology to prove my assertion.

Sarah Water's Writing Style:
In Affinity and Fingersmith, Waters gives her readers historical thrillers.  I raced through Affinity and Fingersmith and with both novels I thought I knew what was going on. Surely everything had been presented to me.  I was there with the characters the entire time.  I saw it all.  I watched for contextual clues.... and then WHAM! out of nowhere the plot shifts and I learn I didn't know everything.  I only knew what characters wanted me to know and I only saw certain perspectives and events. However in Affinity and Fingersmith, Waters does end neatly: deceptions are illuminated, plans are discovered, and as I read on I learned that what I thought was previously happening actually represented something different.  In The Little Stranger the reader never gets that neatly tidied ending.  I didn't get to experience a montage of "what really happened."  It just ended and I had to rack my brains to figure out what it all meant. Figuring out what it all meant was achieved with....

... Remembering other books reflected in the novel:
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, We have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James,  Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels.  Many elements of these novels are found in The Little Stranger, but I'm going to focus on one element found in each one of these novels....

....The Tradition of the Unreliable Narrator: 
As a reader, I think we like to assume we can trust the narrator.  After all the reader only gets a narrator's interpretation of events and as a result the reader is totally dependent on the narrator.  If you read The Little Stranger and implicitly trust the narrator, Dr. Faraday, then there is certainly something paranormal going on.  What other explanation could there be?  All the tapping, whispers, and mysterious smudges, and -- most disturbingly-- Mrs. Ayres experience in the nursery must have something supernatural as an explanation.  But let's think about that.... it seems that she is either mad or haunted.  But.....Dr. Faraday mentions several times that he is drugging her with a light sedative and her eyes remain "glassy."  Do we know that it is a light sedative? Isn't it peculiar that the person Dr. Faraday is doctoring most ends up going mad?  Isn't also strange that he went ahead and did the autopsy and luckily didn't find traces of poison that SOMEONE ELSE could have given Mrs. Aryes?  The reader could believe that Dr. Farady was only giving her a mild sedative and that there was no further damage to her internally.  After all, what possible "gripe" could Dr. Faraday have against the Ayres... Oh wait, that entire post-World Wars demise of the landed gentry and rise of the middle class.  I think it is important to look at historical indicators to the conflict ....

.... like shifting social classes:
After the World Wars, the aristocratic British found their resources low, help was difficult to retain, buildings and land were in disrepair from a lack of money, the violence of war, and the billeting of soldiers.  The middle class resented the aristocracy and also wanted to join it.  Why should one only be born to greatness?  After serving in war next to lords, a doctor or footman or stable boy may want a chance to "make" it.  Dr. Faraday -- from the very beginning -- covets Hundreds Hall.  He ditches his slang, achieves an education and strives to be equal to the gentry. He is acutely aware when someone is looking down on him because of his class (and it usually leads to something bad happening to the Ayres) and reacts with passion, disdain, pride, and cruelty.  Conversely, he believes himself to be worthy of being in a higher class.  He doesn't want the abolition of the upper class, he wants to join them.  He is angry at Caroline, Roderick, and Mrs. Ayres when they are doing chores, or look slovenly, or act outside the sphere of class propriety.  This is one expression of Dr. Faraday's screwy psychological makeup. Yes, the reader must exam....

....Dr. Faraday's Psychology:
I could list 900 instances (and this is not that hyperbolic) of Dr. Faraday's being a delusional psychopath.  He forces himself slowly on the household, those who threaten to sell or leave Hundreds are eliminated, he constantly struggles with an unnamed "frustration", he manipulates the truth for alleged good purposes, he renders the Ayres dependent on him, he collects items from Hundreds and displays them as trophies, he exploits his trusted role as a doctor and he has unexplainable blackouts in which he dreams he was at Hundreds....  The best illustration would be a few of the quotes from Faraday I underlined:

"I told a mixture of lies and half-truths, hoping to seer them from the facts."  (236)

"'I told you before, I'm a nobody.  People don't even see me half the time.  They see 'Doctor'.  They see the bag."  (276)

"I suppose they had come to  rely on me, and liked feeling that I was on hand, ready to drop in, if I had to, in response to a telephone call." (301)

"My mind would go softly across the darkened miles between us, to slip like a poacher through the Hundreds gate and along the overgrown drive, to nudge open the swollen front door, to inch across the chequered marble; and then to go creeping, creeping towards her, up the still and silent stairs."  (335)

"I wanted to catch hold of Caroline and shake and shake her, until she saw reason."  (469)

I left out some very illuminating quotes that are too embedded in the tale and knowing Dr. Faraday's thoughts, or his interpretation of events, would ruin some of the thrill.  There are also numerous instances of other characters remarking about feeling persecuted by something malevolent and questioning what or whom they could have angered to this extent.  Periodically a character will make an allegation towards Dr. Faraday by stating that he is a "no one," of "pirate stock," and they repeatedly ask -- sometimes jokingly and sometimes not -- how did Dr. Faraday insinuate himself into the family so quickly and completely?

Dr. Faraday is able to solicit dark secrets, steer people from the truth, manipulate feelings, and adjust his emotions to fit his plans.  He is at his best a sociopath and at his worst a delusional psychopath.

This all leads back to the the title, The Little Stranger.  The term is first mentioned in the latter part of the book by another doctor; Dr. Seeley states: "Is that so surprising, with things for that family so bleak?  The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners, after all.  Imagine something loosening itself from one of those corners.  Let's call it a -- a germ.  And let's say conditions prove right for that germ to develop -- to grow, like a child in the womb.  What would this little stranger grow into? A sort of shadow-self, perhaps: a Caliban, A Mr Hyde.  A creature motivated by all the nasty impulses and hungers the conscious mind had hoped to keep hidden away:  things like envy, and malice, and frustration...."  (389)

Dr. Faraday is a stranger to the Ayres by class.  He is outside of their world but he envies their privilege, he is frustrated by class condescension, and angered by his inability to possess Hundreds and the social respect he feels he deserves.  It harkens back to his first creeping into Hundreds: coming to the kitchen with his mother, convincing a maid to take him upstairs, slipping away from the curtain which was to hide him, advancing boldly towards the intricate plaster border on the walls, and then mutilating the house in a desperate attempt to "own" a piece of it.  As Dr. Faraday describes this event, " admiring the house, I wanted to possess a piece of it -- or rather, as if the admiration itself, which I suspect a more ordinary child would not have felt, entitled me to it." (3)

Personally, I feel like an evil, crazed man bent on destroying a family and possessing a house is WAY SCARIER than a ghost.  Ghosts aren't real, psychos are certainly real.  The Little Stranger pretends to be a ghost story; what better way to make a reader vulnerable and malleable to the suggestions of a trusted doctor?  In fact, the reader nearly faces the same fate as the doomed Ayreses: frightened, haunted, confused, doubting truth and all the while an insidious man is ensnaring the reader in a realm of half-truth and contrived madness.  Dr. Faraday wins.  The Ayreses are removed.  The reader is baffled and Dr. Faraday walks through Hundreds at his leisure, in a way owning a physical representation of this desire for status.

This is a book that I think will deepen with each re-reading and I look forward to visiting The Little Stranger again in the future (with the door locked and all the lights blazing of course).


Heather said...

Briliant. JUST BRILLIANT Amanda, you little Sherlock you.

And I completely agree. I remember thinking it was him at the end of my first read, but after this reread, I'm totally convinced. I listened to the audio and I kept talking back to Faraday as he did things. I was like "you are SO poisoning her, you bastard!" lol

Great post Amanda, absolutely perfect. I don't think I could add anything to that.

Lindsey Sparks said...

I've got to reread this now!!! I suspected him a few times, but totally didn't end with thinking it's him. I see your points though. I've seen some negative reviews as well, and I think you're right about why - it's not your typical "ghost" story, if it even is a ghost story. I haven't read any of her other works - must remedy that.

Catherine said...

But what about the shaving glass that launches itself at Roderick's head??? WHAT was that??

Also, I'm reading this book right now, because of your review. Which helps me to not be freaked out, as I keep repeating "It's just a psychopathic doctor, he's just grabbing for possessions, nothing scary is happening. It's just Faraday."

Which is also scary. Thanks a lot.

Andi said...

Your post is the POSTER CHILD of posts!!!! Love love love it. Seriously, I don't think I even want to write anything -- just wanna link to yours.

Chinoiseries said...

I really like the idea of Faraday being the Little Stranger. He is indeed, scarier and a bigger threat than whatever is rumoured to haunt Hundred's Hall.

Other than that, I'm afraid I belong in the other camp, that does not like this book very much. I've read my share of scary books and I understand why the build-up takes so long... but that doesn't mean I like it.

Barbara said...

Yes. Faraday is quite in control until his marriage plans start unravelling. When he starts to lose control, his worst behavior comes out -- his embarassing visit to the family's solicitor, his repeated stalking of Caroline and telling her what she can and can't do.

Kristi said...

Your post is incredible. You definitely lay out your case well. I'm beginning to think you're right. Faraday is a psychopath, whether or not he was the little stranger. I do have a copy and am looking forward to maybe re-reading some of it to see if I can get a better grip on what happened.

Leslie (Under My Apple Tree) said...

Wonderful review and analysis. I too read this for the Group Read. Once I began to think of Farady as unreliable it changed the whole book for me. And while I agree he probably did it, a part of me wants to believe that the house itself did 'come alive' and turn on it's owners.

Elizabeth said...

Yes, yes, and yes - this is everything I was thinking, but logically and eloquently stated. Now I just want to delete mine and put a link to yours in its place. =)

nrlymrtl said...

I've also seen the reviews that folks found this book less than great. However, I agree with you - this is a book you have to work at. I really liked how good and evil were not absolutes and that the reader was left with plenty to think about and to decide on.

JoV said...

I read the book when it first published in 2010, I was slightly bored about it but was intrigued to find out what it was at the end. I went back to my old review and try to suss out what my own suspicion was. For fear of spoiling it for my readers, of course I didn't mention it. But I think I am thinking the same line as yours.

I remember Mr Faraday said:
"Phantasms are not ghosts. They’re parts of a person"
‘Part of a person?’ as Dr. Faraday.

‘Unconscious parts, so strong or so troubled they can take on a life of their own,’ said Caroline.

I wonder if there is some part of me is taking a life of its own and wandering on the other side of earth? So yes Mr Faraday is a delusional psychopath. Brilliant review. Thanks.

claire said...

I completely agree with everything you said! Excellent post on the book. I was blown away in the end when it was confirmed that it was him. I traced back my thoughts to the very beginning, how he could have managed to have Gillian be bitten by Gyp and at the exact same time do all those mischief in Rod's room. But of course, the unreliable narrator! How could we believe things happened exactly as they did? I can't wait for time to pass and I can reread this again with a fresh mind. Loved this book so much!

Fence said...

Ahhhh! I was speculating on that fact myself, but this was my first read of The Little Stranger, so possibly I picked up on Faraday's unreliable a bit too late to know one way of the other if he was, in fact, the stranger of the title.

I didn't like the ending of the book, I found it too open. I thought that maybe there was a ghost, maybe not. Maybe it was the doctor, maybe not. But your post makes me lean much more towards the "it was Faraday" than I was, and makes the ending all the more horrible!

Darlene said...

Wow, your analysis just blew me away! Now I feel I need to go back for another listen!!