Sarah Waters and I have had our ups and downs, mostly due to the fact that I read her first three novels in reverse order of their publication--from the twisty, superb Fingersmith, through the intense but punishing Affinity, to the borderline unreadable Tipping the Velvet. However unfairly--since, after all, Waters had been improving as a writer--I found myself reluctant to go any further with her, and gave her fourth novel, The Night Watch, a pass. Positive responses to it, as well as the slow healing of the wounds left by Tipping the Velvet, persuaded me to make a stab at her latest effort, The Little Stranger, and I'm glad I did. Fingersmith remains my favorite of Waters's novels, and I have serious problems with Stranger, but there's no denying that it is both absorbing and intense--shockingly so, given the ordinariness of its setting and the matter-of-fact way in which its events are reported. Even more importantly, it demonstrates--as the first three novels would have, had I not had the misfortune to read them in the wrong order--that Waters is not content to rest on her laurels, either in her settings or in her style. She's an author who is testing the boundaries of her talent and continually complicating the kind of stories she writes, with results that are, at the very least, fascinating to observe.
What I find interesting about Waters is that she's clearly a writer who is torn between her romantic and realistic impulses. Her first and third novels are driven by the vast array of pulpy tropes that make up the romantic novelist's toolkit: the babies switched at birth, mistaken identities, wicked guardians, and false confinement to a mental asylum in Fingersmith; the sequence of evil, unworthy, or unsuitable lovers the heroine must traipse through before she meets her one true love in Tipping the Velvet. In between these two novels, however, Waters wrote Affinity, a claustrophobic psychological novel which concerned itself almost exclusively with its narrator, Margaret's, troubled state of mind, and whose events and settings were stiflingly mundane. Affinity's plot is essentially Margaret moving back and forth between the cramped, airless house in which she is profoundly unhappy, and the drab, institutional prison where she visits female inmates, as she falls deeper into the delusion that one of the inmates--who is clearly manipulating her--loves her, and draws closer and closer to ruin and suicide. Though Waters's descriptions are undeniably effective, I found Affinity to be a profoundly mean-spirited novel, the literary equivalent of a splatter film. I felt that it expected me to enjoy the intensity with which Waters described Margaret's unraveling--certainly there was no room for pity, only a cold disdain, in her descriptions of the lonely and pathetic Margaret--and couldn't help but wonder if like so many artists before her, Waters had mistaken ugliness for realism.
The Little Stranger is a partly successful fusion of these two impulses. It's a ghost story mixed with the story of the decline of the British upper class, a sort of cross between Brideshead Revisited and The Haunting of Hill House. It achieves its romantic effect--the ratcheting dread experienced by the inhabitants of Hundreds Hall--through mundane means, and describes that dread and its causes through the eyes of a thoroughly mundane and rational man. In 1947, Doctor Faraday (whose first name is never revealed to us) is called to the dilapidated Hundreds Hall to treat a servant. Once the home of one of the county's most illustrious families, both the house and its inhabitants--the widowed Mrs. Ayres and her grown-up children Roderick and Caroline--have fallen into disrepair. The changes in economic reality and attitudes towards class wrought by the two world wars mean that the Ayreses no longer have the financial wherewithal to field the army of servants needed to keep their house from falling apart and themselves in the manner to which they had been accustomed. Faraday finds them living in genteel squalor--Mrs. Ayres clinging to the affectations of the squire's wife even though she has no one left to condescend to, Roderick faltering under the cumulative weight of lingering shell-shock and the stress of keeping the failing estate afloat, and Caroline, cursed with a plain face and a decent brain, desperate to get out.
Faraday, whose mother was once a servant at Hundreds and who carries a chip on his shoulder for that, as well as for his own confused class feelings--his working class parents worked themselves into an early grave in order to put him through medical school--is nevertheless drawn to the family, becoming their confidant and benefactor, offering advice, free medical care, and the occasional luxury item in exchange for a half-hearted acceptance as something between a servant and a member of the family. Dan Hartland calls Faraday's confused response to the Ayreses an expression of England's continuing love-hate relationship with its upper class, which is no doubt true, but not having experienced this ambivalence first hand I was mainly reminded of other novels that toy with it--Brideshead Revisited, of course, but also The Go-Between, The Line of Beauty, and Beware of Pity. Like the protagonists of those novels, Faraday is a man who has had to discard his origins in order to advance in life, and now finds himself without a sense of self. He's drawn to the Ayreses not because of their privilege and wealth--which they no longer possess--but because of the unshakable certainty with which they regard their place in the world. That same certainty, however, renders the Ayreses impermeable, a self-contained unit which Faraday can observe and occasionally interact with, but to which he can never truly belong. The only way for Faraday to gain admittance to the family is for it to be torn down.
And torn down it is. One by one, the Ayreses fall by the wayside, undone by poverty and their inability to cope with their reduced circumstances. As, of course, we knew they must, as Waters promises in the novel's opening paragraph, in which Faraday recalls a childhood visit to Hundreds, which even then seemed to him "like an ice ... just beginning to melt in the sun." It is precisely this certainty of the family's doom, however, that recalls the mean-spiritedness of Affinity. The whole point of the novel seems to be for us to observe the disintegration of a family whose destruction is assured from the get-go. Because Waters continues to grow more subtle and more sophisticated with each novel she writes, The Little Stranger is not nearly as uncomfortable a read as Affinity. Several off-ramps appear on the family's path towards doom, making that doom seem less inevitable, and the obvious homage to Brideshead Revisited and its ilk softens the sting of the Ayreses' failure to take advantage of these opportunities, a failure which seems less like a choice on Waters's part and more like keeping faith with her literary antecedents. Nevertheless, there is no denying that the novel's emotional charge is derived mostly from waiting for the next axe to fall, for the next calamity to afflict the Ayreses and claim another one of their number.
Far from being tragic, this anticipation of calamity is the source of the novel's pleasure--the pleasure one feels at the thrills and scares of a horror movie. It's through the romantic, ghost story aspect of the novel that the Ayreses' destruction is related, as the family experiences hauntings and supernatural events which rattle the self-assurance that their real-world troubles had left untroubled. If, in the past, the Ayreses had been able to retreat to Hundreds Hall and pretend that the world hadn't changed around them, now the house itself seems to have turned against them. All of which is not to say that The Little Stranger is a genre novel--indeed it is determinedly, deliberately ambiguous about its genre, offering a rational explanation immediately alongside each supposed supernatural happening. For that matter, the specific type of supernatural phenomenon at work is never settled upon, with several different explanations suggested--is Hundreds haunted by the ghost of Mrs. Ayres's oldest daughter? Does it house a poltergeist? Is the emotionally unstable Roderick a firestarter? Does the teenage servant Betty have telekinetic powers? Is Caroline unconsciously punishing the family that has immured her in her childhood home?--but never enough 'evidence' to support any of them over the others.
To a genre reader, this ambiguity seems a little like the coyness of a mainstream writer not quite willing to admit having written a genre novel (though given her pulpy leanings this may be an unfair charge to lay at Waters's feet). I certainly found it less effective than in novels like The Haunting of Hill House, which like The Little Stranger leave us uncertain as to whether the haunted character is truly haunted or insane. In these more overt genre works, the uncertainty is used to bring us into the main character's fractured headspace. The Little Stranger, however, uses it as a distancing device. Faraday being so entirely rational means that the dilemma is just that--two competing theories, each with evidence for and against it--instead of the mingling of rationality and horror that make Hill House or The Turn of the Screw so effective.
That said, it is probably the case that Waters wasn't trying to emulate The Haunting of Hill House or any other straight up ghost story, for all that she may be recalling them, and that the distancing she creates through Faraday's mundane, unimaginative worldview is quite deliberate. Dan Hartland's reading that the supernatural elements of the novel are both a smokescreen and a metaphor for the more mundane attacks against the Ayreses and their class--as another character says to Faraday, what's sucking the life out of the house is the labor government and its deliberate strategy of taxing and regulating the upper class out of existence--is more generous than mine and quite likely closer to what Waters intended with the novel. It doesn't, however, change the fact that Waters takes advantage of an ambiguity she has no intention of supporting. None of the supernatural explanations for the Ayreses' predicament--not even the supposed revelation of the novel's closing paragraph--truly hold water, and in the end it's hard not to feel that Waters was simply wasting our time, using the ghost story--and the question of whether the novel actually is a ghost story--to gussy up a too-familiar Brideshead retelling, then tossing it by the wayside when it's no longer useful.
I've touched here mostly on my complaints against The Little Stranger, which is unfair because, as I said at the beginning of this review, I did find the novel nearly unputdownable. There's a lot here that's worth reading for--Faraday himself, with his complete lack of self-awareness and mixed up class prejudices, is a masterful example of the unreliable narrator, and his descriptions of the increasing calamities at Hundreds are a fine demonstration of the power of an affectless, boring and personality-free voice to create tension and horror. It's what's left when the last page is turned and the effect of the novel's romantic elements is allowed to subside--the Brideshead homage, the discussion of class in post-war Britain--that is leaving me, if not cold, then a little put off. Though The Little Stranger restored my faith in Waters as a writer, I can't help but feel that it is a mean novel. It may not be a ghost story, but it is uncomfortably reminiscent of the kind of horror novel that gives its genre a bad name--the kind that expects us to turn off empathy and enjoy the suffering of others. I can't help but feel that between this extreme and Evelyn Waugh's fawning lament for the death of the British upper class there is a more sensible, more compassionate middle ground, but Sarah Waters hasn't found it yet.