Waters: The Little Stranger

September 22, 2010

The Little Stranger
Sarah Waters (McClelland & Stewart, 2009)
480 p. First reading.

If one is going to go to the trouble of writing a ghost story, one might as well make sure that the finest ingredients are at hand, and Sarah Waters has certainly done so. For her stage she summons up an old English country house, now falling into disrepair, many of its rooms draped and shut, and the family retreating into an ever smaller circle of light. The family, too, is in decay, plagued by financial troubles and touched by illness and madness. Time, closing the curtain on the house’s glory days, conceals secrets that nonetheless quietly press their way into the present. A haunting seems almost inevitable.

The Little Stranger belongs to the same class of ghost story as The Turn of the Screw. It is highly naturalistic, adopting all of the emotional realism and narrative detail that one expects from serious fiction. Into this faithfully rendered world the supernatural elements of the story creep from the corners, never fully exposed, and never really understood. The story unfolds at a leisurely pace — maybe too leisurely — but this gives us room to get to know the central characters apart from their disquieting visitations. The focus is not principally, as is often the case with ghost stories, on ‘solving the case’ of the haunting, but also on living through the experiences with the characters and seeing how they are affected. How would you be affected?

The quality of the writing is high. Waters has been short-listed three times for the Man Booker Prize, including a nomination for this book. (The Little Stranger lost, however, to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.) It is, perhaps unusually for a literary novel, genuinely suspenseful and frightening. Her literary style is not allowed to draw attention to itself at the expense of the story. And the story is so finely architected that the overall plan is not apparent until the very last page (and, indeed, the last sentence).

If I do have a concern about the book — and, it so happens, I do — it is that I fear it suffers in the end from a failure of nerve. A common temptation for modern writers of ghost stories, which has lured many away from the straight and narrow, has been to replace the supernatural element of the story with a phenomenon that, however strange, is ultimately given a scientific, or quasi-scientific, explanation. In this way the crack in the world, which it is the whole purpose of a ghost story to pry open, is sealed up again, and an imposture is perpetrated upon the reader. Granted that there is some ambiguity in this case, I would argue that Waters seems to have succumbed to this temptation, and, for me, despite the delicacy with which it is done, this is enough to give the book a faintly bitter flavour. Those who do not adhere as rigorously to a correct understanding of the nature and purpose of ghost stories may find the fare Waters serves to be more palatable than I finally did.

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