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The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Imagine a mansion that’s slowly decaying from lack of care. Imagine the house in its glory days and all the people who used to look up at it with wonder and then forced to see it become nothing due to poor money management.

No, I’m not talking about We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. I’m talking about “The Little Stranger” – a book I realized was the source of a movie I’ve seen a few years ago only after the first chapter was finished and the little boy broke off an acorn from the house mantle. Sarah Waters sets her latest novel in post-World War II Warwickshire and tries her hand at an Old Dark House.

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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…”

The-Little-Stranger-new-film-posterI did like the book even though the dialogue became boring at times. What ruined it for me though was the fact that I had seen the movie. I know how it ended. I knew about the twist. I knew all their secrets so when the young doctor was treating wounds and acting surprised, I knew that he was the one who done it. It spoiled it so much that half way through the book, my boredom reached epic levels.

I stopped and started thinking. I’ve read books before after watching the movie. I usually enjoyed the additional insight that came with the book. The voices, the dialogue, the inner thoughts. With “The Little Stranger”, the dialogue was so monotone, I could easier watch grass grow.

“Yes, Emily Dickenson — a rather exhausting poet, now I come to think of it. All that breathlessness and skipping about. What’s wrong with nice, long lines and a jaunty rhythm?”

Oh yes, what is wrong with jaunty rhythm?

When everyone talks like a 1800’s madam in her 70’s, you soon wish the doctor to see his fortune made and everyone else dead. Because that’s what this book is about. Coveting other people’s possessions. The desire to own things, to be seen and appreciated, to belong. The doctor is never a part of that elite circle of blue bloods. He is invited to parties only because the old lady of the house can’t stand having her former friends invited to see the state they were living in when all the money ran out.

12_5188e7776b6875a51800c46feb35e363.jpgAnd it’s a sad story of sorts. Nobility without power, richness without influence and cash flow. A dying breed, discussing their pearls and their horses and their money. As we see everything through the newcomer’s eyes, we understand his ambition, his hate of the wealthy.

The experience can leave one feeling drained, but also oddly wakeful and edgy, and now my mind, with nothing to anchor it, began to run over the details of the past few hours like a film on a loop.”

The doctor can never belong, can view things from the outside, like in a movie. The only way to become a participant is to insinuate himself in their lives and make himself indispensable. He makes everyone feel crazy and soon, he commits the brother, the mother dies and he nearly manages to marry the sole heir to the estate before she realises what a parasite he is and he has to kill her. All due to the love of an estate.

“I first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old. It was the summer after the war, and the Ayreses still had most of their money then, were still big people in the district… I recall most vividly the house itself, which struck me as an absolute mansion. I remember its lovely ageing details: the worn red brick, the cockled window glass, the weathered sandstone edgings. They made it look blurred and slightly uncertain – like an ice, I thought, just beginning to melt in the sun.”

Sarah Waters’ book trudges on for more than 450 pages, grinding all the tension and eeriness out of her narrative. No suspense story can maintain its energy at this pace, it’s like one of those jazz singers who sing standards so slowly that the melody disintegrates into just a sequence of individual disconnected notes, drained of any musical or emotional meaning.

Waters is a good stylist, and there are sections of the book where you can see what she was trying for – the evocation of the house, Hundreds Hall, and its unsettling decline is especially successful – and I respect her for trying something new, but overall I didn’t think she achieved what she meant.

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Good bits:

  • Victorian setting
  • Slow decline of aristocracy
  • maybe haunting of Hill House
  • The return of the unreliable narrator in the form of the doctor

Bad bits:

  • terribly slow
  • the doctor is never present at any of the occurrences. he hears about them from other people involved but he never seems to be there. How oh how did he manage to do all of these things
  • Ghost wasn’t scary enough
  • unlikable characters

2/5

The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners, after all.”