Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Little Stranger

Near the end of his recent book At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Bill Bryson paints a grim picture of the lives of wealthy British landowners in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Because of death duties and other skyrocketing taxes, he tells us, most of the rich "lived within a semipermanent state of crisis," forced to sell off the heirlooms from their country houses, and sometimes the country houses themselves.  Beautiful estates were torn apart or torn down, their treasures scattered to the four winds.

When I read that section of Bryson's book, I rolled my eyes.  I don't generally do well with being asked to sympathize with idle rich people who are no longer permitted to be idle, and I've never cared about the "fate" of pretty houses and the pretty things inside them.  But this week I've been rereading The Little Stranger, the latest novel by the great Sarah Waters.  It's about the fate of a wealthy British family and their grand manor in the changing social and political climate of the late 1940s-- and, as before I found it captivating and remarkably moving.

Part of the reason for that is that Waters, unlike Bryson, is taking the decline of the great estates as her primary subject rather than as an epilogue, so she can paint a more nuanced portrait.  More importantly, it never feels like she's trying too hard to make us feel pity or sympathy for the Ayres family.  Each member of the family, from the widowed, ladylike Mrs. Ayres to her injured veteran son Roderick to her tough-minded "spinster" daughter Caroline, is carefully-drawn and multi-faceted, much more complex than the stereotypes my descriptions may have evoked.  They're not heroes or sacrificial lambs for a cruel modern age, but people, with all the faults and virtues of their class.  Mrs Ayres may be unfailingly polite, but when the conversation turns to trained monkeys she's also capable of this little gem: "“Some society or other would prevent it, or Mr. Gandhi would object. Probably monkeys have the vote in India now.”

Likewise, Waters offers a balanced view of the evolution of postwar British society.   She acknowledges the regrettable loss of gorgeous eighteenth-century architecture without losing sight of the affordable council housing that will replace it.  Whenever one of the Ayreses reflects on the loss of their genteel way of life, the novel's narrator, Faraday, who rose from the lower class to become a doctor, is able to provide a contrary memory of deprivation or ill-treatment by that same aristocracy.

"That's all very well," you may be saying, "but why are you writing about this on a ghost story blog?"  Well, The Little Stranger is also a ghost story, a subtle, evocative one in the manner of M. R. James and other early twentieth-century masters.  Something seems to be wrong at Hundreds Hall, the Ayres mansion.  Is it all in the imagination of the new housemaid, Betty?  Is it the ghost of the household's dead daughter, Susan?  Or is it something even stranger?  Like all the best ghost stories, this one builds slowly, to the point where the first hundred pages or so may be a bit of a slog for the first-time reader.  (My mother put the book aside about halfway through and had to be persuaded to pick it up again.  Once she did, she sped through the second half in a white heat.)  When the supernatural manifestations begin, though, there are some genuinely chilling sequences, including an extended one that's so brilliant I wish I could copy the whole thing out and quote it here.  The only thing I'll say is that it provides more confirmation that the most effective terrors are those that are aural or tactile rather than visual, not to mention those that go undescribed entirely.

The book is suffused with imagery that's simple but nonetheless intensely atmospheric, as in the opening of Chapter Eight:

In purely practical terms, changes occurred almost at once, for the estate's already overstretched finances were hit hard by the fees of [spoilery reference removed], and drastic extra economies had to be put in place in order to accommodate them.  The generator, for example, was now routinely turned off for days at a stretch, and going up to the hall on those wintry evenings I'd often find the place plunged into nearly total darkness.  There would be an old brass lantern left out for me on a table just inside the front door, and I'd pick my way through the house with it-- the smoke-scented walls of the passages, I remember, seeming to dance forward into the soft yellow light, and then to recede again into shadow as I moved on.  Mrs Ayres and Caroline would be together in the little parlour, reading or sewing or listening to the wireless by the light of candles and oil-lamps.  The flames would be weak enough to make them squint, but the room would seem a sort of radiant capsule in comparison with the inkiness all about it.  If they rang for Betty she'd come with an old-fashioned candlestick, wide-eyed, like a character in a nursery rhyme.

It's at this level, where the mildly gothic ghost story trappings run in parallel with the decaying lifestyle of the postwar aristocracy, that The Little Stranger achieves its greatest success.  It helps that Waters isn't determined to run the metaphor into the ground.  It's always there, but only rarely comes to the forefront as thoroughly as it does in the following exchange:

I shook my head. "This is a weirder thing even than that hysteria.  It's as if-- well, it's as if something's slowly sucking the life out of the whole family."

"Something is," he said with another bark of laughter.  "It's called a Labour Government."

I could witter on a lot longer here.  I haven't mentioned, for instance, how Waters is able to keep Dr Faraday's narration stolid and straightforward without making it dull, or how perfectly managed the book's final twists are.  But I think I've said enough.  Whether you admire elegant classical ghost stories or thoughtful, well-observed historical novels, The Little Stranger is well worth a look.  It's one of my favorite books from 2009.

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