Sarah Water: The Little Stranger

Waters, Sarah (2009), The Little Stranger, Virago
ISBN 978-1-84408-601-6

I have heard good things about Sarah Waters, which is probably the reason why I picked her most recent novel, The Little Stranger, as my my next stop on my attempted odyssey through the Booker shortlist, although my reading speed is so dismal that between finishing this one and the last, the shortlist has been announced and I might just pick book number three 3 off of that one. As I’d hoped, Ed O’Loughlin’s awful novel has not been shortlisted, but Sarah Waters’ Gothic novel, deservedly, has. The Little Stranger is a very well written and well constructed book, marvelous, really. It’s not without its flaws but its strengths clearly overshadow its weaknesses; I found it a satisfying read, both on an emotional as well as on a cerebral level.

The Little Stranger is a Gothic novel, hewing rather close to many exponents of the genre, not just in its adherence to rules and use of motifs, but also in as fundamental aspects as setting and vocabulary, even. It was the latter part that led me to read the book’s project as one of pastiche. That can have a limiting effect. If we look back upon the book, having read and absorbed it all, wanting to write a positive review, it can be a bit disheartening to see how it’s all rather well contained within the genre limits, how little of a thrust outside, of a broader vision, a clearer grasp of situations etc. we actually find. While reading, the impression can be a different one, but any look back will reveal the book as looking inward, curled up like a frightened hedgehog. This, however, is not just a limitation, it’s also one of the strengths of the book. There is no need for it to strain for a broader vision, it strains, on the contrast, to fill the nooks and crannies of the mansion at the center of its narrative with anxieties, constructions, and ideas about sexuality and rationality. While it is definitely true that the novel rarely breaks the mold of the genre it’s set up to be part of, I don’t regard ‘making it new’ necessarily as a hallmark of great literature. Sarah Waters has given us a very good book that picks up quite a few ideas and arranges them by making them part of a Gothic novel. The genre, and this is a sign of her success, doesn’t read as restraining, although it could well have. It feels so necessary, so much part and parcel of the stories and ideas Waters relates to us, that I can’t help but wonder if the genre wasn’t picked because it was such a good fit.

The novel’s protagonist and narrator, Doctor Faraday, is a physician in the countryside in the United Kingdom between the two World Wars. He isn’t exactly young anymore and he’s not successful either. He shares a practice with an established physician, daily combating fears of losing all his patient if his partner should retire and die. He does not have a particularly remarkable vision for what he does, although he isn’t incapable of developing one, as we see later. In fact, although the story is written from his point of view, bits and pieces of ideas keep floating to the surface that he evidently harbored but kept from his conscious thoughts. And ideas and visions are not the only things, I think, that he represses or shuts away. He isn’t forceful in any way, and when, later on, he tries to go down that path, he missteps frequently, behaving like a sullen boy and not like a man with convictions. This is not to say that he does not, in fact, have convictions. Indeed, he has a series of strongly held convictions, the most central, at least for The Little Stranger, is his view of himself as a man of science, a man of reason, his very name indicative of his allegiances. But although he has a backbone, has convictions that he isn’t ready or willing to abandon, even under strong emotional stress, he lacks a personal impetus, a force. He will take opportunities if and when they present themselves, he will state his opinion if and when called upon to do so, but he is largely passive and throughout the novel, that’s how he’ll stay.

The book is constructed around a large mansion, and people will return to that mansion or flee from it. It is immobile and much of the novel’s conflict results from the fact that the people, the Ayreses, who live in there, appear to be similarly immobile, clinging to their holdings, their old status, their house, trying to salvage as much of what they used to own as the country moves into modernity and Attlee’s Labor government makes laws that appear to be less than kind to the beleaguered nobility, yet as far as the characters are concerned, Faraday is the passive one, the immobile aging man, despite spending much of his time traveling to and from the mansion, immobile in more ways than one. The Ayreses, in contrast, are, at least initially, more interesting. This is a family of three, with old Mrs. Ayres and the two children, adults by now. One of those is Roderick Ayres, the brother, who was in the Great War and suffered grievous wounds, his leg still not recovered and, as the book sets in, not likely to ever do. He is bitter, suffering, and exhausted yet determined to hold everything together. His desk is swamped in documents, bills, letters, contracts, and he also, despite his bad leg, works on the field and with the animals. His sister, Caroline, is the most finely realized character in the novel. She is, apparently, a bit dumpy looking, frequently described as a “clever girl” which Faraday translates as meaning that she’s rather ordinary as far as looks are concerned, and, overall, “a natural spinster”. She doesn’t attract men, but then she doesn’t try to, she dresses in functional clothes, which often means men’s clothes, she never or rarely goes out.

It is, interestingly, Faraday, the narrator, who keeps returning to this point, who keeps presenting other peoples’ remarks about this, just to, more often than not, record his protest. Methinks he doth protest too much. In fact, it is as a narrator, that Faraday is most consistently entertaining and interesting. The whole novel, as I said, is written from his perspective, utilizing a first person narrator. Since he doesn’t live in the mansion, and many decisive and disturbing things happen in his absence at the mansion, this presents certain problems as to what information Waters is able to impart to the reader and how she does that. Basically, she chooses to use two different ways and its significant that one of them dominates the first half (eh, more than exactly half, maybe ‘part’ would be the better word) and the other the second. One is an announcement of strange events that happened in his absence, and then a seemingly third person narrative of these events. In fact, this is not what we have. The reader is given a lot of indicators that these sections are Faraday’s version of the events, as he was able to piece them together from different talks with the relevant witnesses. We know that both these talks must have taken place and that there must have been different volleys of talk, since we get different hierarchies of information, some clearly predating others. We know these things through small hints, words like “apparently” and phrases like “she said later” (the latter often about integral parts of the narrative, making a construction as straight third person impossible to uphold), scattered throughout the text.

The other kind of re-telling contains the act of telling within it, as Faraday includes his talk with those who witness it as part of the narrative. This is increasingly important in the book, as his own relationship with the Ayreses becomes more and more central and his attitude to what is told become more important, as well. Waters is very subtle about this, as she is about many things in this book. As a writer she’s often frightfully good and complex, despite using deceptively simple means to go about her business. By having these two basic kinds of re-tellings, she pushes Faraday into the reader’s gaze, forcing him (the reader) to consider the dull doctor, to remember to what extent the narrative and information is, indeed, shaped by him. At the end of the novel, he is, literally called upon to be a witness in a trial, the book thus materializing an immaterial, an implicit function, which is a trick very frequently used by Gothic novels, but here it’s largely with a focus on narrative. So what happens, the impatient reader, wading through hundreds of words looking for a point or plot in this review, may ask? Well, Doctor Faraday, born to a former servant at the Ayreses’ mansion, strikes up a relationship with the current owners of that house, Roderick, Caroline and their mother. When he offers to use an experimental method to relieve Roderick’s pain in his leg, he becomes, in a way, part of that family, and witness to many things that happen there. Strange events suddenly start happening, signs appearing on high, unreachable ceilings, tame dogs biting the cheek of the neighbors’ daughter, fires rising inexplicably all over the house. As the story starts to pick up speed, and more and more strange things happen, madness and death ensues until the book, in part, starts to exhibit the qualities of a Greek tragedy.

It is never, this much I’ll tell you, unambiguously explained what the reason for the events is, although we’re offered a few, some more consistent than others. Any explanation for the events will also be a large part of what the person, who holds that opinion, thinks the novel is ‘about’, this is how central this is to the story. One, easily the most boring kind of explanation, would focus upon the social role of the Ayreses, on their attempt to cling to the past etc. There are all kinds of sections that tie into that, for example the complex role allotted to Faraday as a friend of the family who would not, under normal circumstances, be admitted into the inner sanctum of relationships in that family. Part of this is the rising sense of entitlement among the nouveaux riches and even the poor compatriots of the Ayreses, a sense that Faraday cannot disengage himself of either, although Faraday’s attitude is a strange mixture of entitlement and low self-esteem. An indicator for this would be the excess of self-pity that speaks of his assertion that, when at one point, he’s told to be handsome, the woman uses “the voice that nice women use for complimenting unhandsome men”. Instead of making him more interesting, this dichotomy in his character makes Faraday one of the most annoying narrators and protagonists I have recently had the displeasure of encountering, although it serves a distinct purpose. I called this explanation boring because it’s the one the novel offers directly, it’s even quite frequently debated within the book and as such, barely worth mentioning, it’s that obvious.

Two other aspects and explanations can be constructed around sexuality and rationality. Although sexuality is also debated now and then, there are fascinating undercurrents to it. The “sexual impulse” is presented as a “dangerous energy” and not only is Caroline a “natural spinster”, but Faraday is a bachelor, as well. Now, as is obvious, there are lots of pent-up sexual energies in the book, repressed sexuality, and this kind of repression can almost be expected from a Gothic novel, but, and in this I am not sure, I think that this sexuality isn’t strictly heterosexual in nature. There is no homosexual or even homo-erotic relationship in the book, but allusions and hints abound, as when Roderick’s embarrassment sexualizes a largely clinical procedure. Also, even for a bachelor, Faraday is astonishingly gauche when handling a woman, and the male gaze in his narrative is keps very well under wraps in the narrative that he, after all, controls himself. Is it propriety or is repression a factor in this? Hard to tell. Faraday does propose marriage to a woman, but it’s less a question of desire and sexual love, it’s more a question of custom and conventions. Faraday clearly has warm feelings but I think he misreads them, under pressure from, as I said, the customs and conventions of his time, which is why, for example, as I mentioned earlier, he so emphasizes Caroline’s eventual spinsterhood. After all, in Faraday’s time it was still possible to use “bachelor” as shorthand for “homosexual”.

As for reason, well, much of the last third of the book appears to consist of a conflict between reason and superstition. If you’ve ever been in a protracted discussion about an issue that has an important impact on your personal life, if you’ve ever been in contact with a highly irrational person and his or her family, you may be in a position to understand Faraday’s vexation near the end. Far from even considering a reading of him and his behavior as naïve or strange, the whole situation sent shivers down my spine, it was so well captured, sp well constructed. When Faraday talks to the one he loves, and considers that she might be insane, this is incredibly well done, pitch-perfect, as I said, it frightened me, reminding me of my own experiences. The utter impossibility of communication between Faraday and his disturbed friends is meaningful, this is by no means just about a jilted lover, Faraday fails to comprehend his lover. As we project that which we label as madness onto the outside, as not-speaking (again, the choice of Faraday as speaker is perfect), the other of acceptable discourse, we rob ourselves of possible meanings and communications, especially if we stick to those limits and set up camp within our rationality, our communication. The final disaster happens, maybe, because Faraday operates with a very strict dichotomy, not allowing other rationalities to get a foot in the door and his love prevents him from chucking his love completely out of his own camp, but incomprehension has already set in. The Little Stranger strikingly and powerfully makes this point yet on the other hand, it’s use of pastiche, its adherence to tradition, to genre, means that it itself sets up camp with the doctor. While criticizing and illuminating his and its own position, which is an impressive and laudable feat, it does not try nor manage to illuminate the others’ positions.

In fact, its use of the Gothic, its inward gaze, can even be said to contain a disregard for anything outside the norm. This is the effect of the intense focus upon Faraday and this is a large and, perhaps, damaging weakness. It’s significant that Faraday’s tending to a patient mental exhaustion, his treatment of her mental problems, leads her to feel “as though I’m invalid”. However, you can’t have the cake and eat it, too. Many of the novel’s results may be problematic, but where it succeeds, it does in an admirable, powerful manner. It portrays superstition as ‘the little stranger’ in the middle of the house of modern rational thought, and this has its problems, but its exploration of that house and its depiction of repressions and energies active in that family and its friends is frequently a joy to observe. It’s a great read, although it can appear to be slow at times. It’s true, Waters doesn’t rush it, she waits for details to accumulate, but she uses the time thus gained to pepper her readers with hints and allusions, and the reader, in a way, is disciplined to adhere to a certain reading speed, to follow the slow turns and changes with patience. It may be that part of the novel closes itself to the reader who insists on speeding through it, it’s in a way a punishing effect. Much of this book is actually rather unkind. If you have the patience, however, this is a wonderful read and I am very glad it was shortlisted. It’s certainly one of the best books I’ve recently read and it’s my first novel by Waters but it certainly won’t be my last. Thank you, Booker.

One thought on “Sarah Water: The Little Stranger

  1. Pingback: Booker Longlist Boredom « shigekuni.

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