Friday, July 31, 2009


The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters, Riverhead Books, 2009, 473 pp

One of the main stories of 20th century Great Britain is the decline of the landed gentry class. I have read many novels based on this sad tale, some of which were enjoyable, a few which were great. In these novels, there tends to be a dark family secret involved which is connected to the gradual dissipation inherent in inheriting money and land rather than having to work for it. The final death knells are the two world wars and the rise of the middle class.

Sarah Waters has brought all of these elements to bear in her story and centered it around a haunting. The Ayres family home, Hundreds Hall, is a crumbling Georgian edifice inhabited by a widow, her war damaged son, her unattractive spinster daughter, a teen aged servant girl and "the little stranger." Doctor Faraday, local doctor, long time bachelor, who worked his way up from humble beginnings and has a struggling practice, is called in one day when the Ayres' family physician is unavailable. He becomes rather injudiciously entangled in the family's affairs. In fact, he is besotted by them all but especially Caroline, the spinster.

The Little Stranger has gotten mostly glowing reviews from readers and critics. Just this week it was added to the longlist for the Man Booker Award. "Deliciously creepy," said one critic. "A stunning haunted house horrifying as...Shirley Jackson," proclaims another. I found the novel mind numbing and endless with a far from satisfying conclusion.

Too much repetitive description, painfully slow plot development and characters about whom I could not care, were my main objections. Doctor Faraday remained an unimaginative, bumbling clod throughout. Despite a glimpse of hope that Caroline would rise above it all and claim a life for herself in the modern world, alas the ghost vanquishes her as well. (Plot spoiler. I know. But you are probably not going to read the book now, are you?)

The worst epithet is that, like a joke that isn't funny, a ghost story that isn't scary is not worth a reader's time.

(If you DO want to read it, this book is available in hardcover by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)