You can now have my Style Notes column delivered direct to your inbox every Saturday morning, by subscribing to my new blog Maggie Alderson Style Notes.
Click on the rather faint grey link above.
Follow me on marvellous Twitter @MaggieA
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
3. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
First let me draw your attention to the time gap between my last posting and this one – two days. That should give you an idea of how much I enjoyed this book. Which is 499 pages long in hard back. I was up to 3 a.m. last night reading it and resumed to finish at six this morning. It’s a ripper.
I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Sarah Waters, but confess I was a little disappointed when I first heard about this one because it isn’t about fascinating lesbians of yore. I love that stuff, the sense of being let into a secret history.
By contrast, the narrator of this book is a straight, middle-aged man living in rural England in the late 1940s - and it’s the proof of Waters’ prodigious talent that his voice is utterly convincing and compelling from the outset.
The story revolves around a beautiful country house which is crumbling into disrepair – the family which owns it in equal decline. The narrator’s mother was in service there as a young woman and he visited as a child, attending a let-them-eat-cake jolly for the workers’ children, during which he had a tantalising glimpse of the house and family in their full Edwardian splendour.
He returns as a grown man - and a doctor – to find it all in near ruin. This shift in his relative status and its implications within the minute calibrations of the English class system – already in turmoil under the post-war Labour government - forms the background theme of the book.
The upfront issue is a gripping ghost story, so scary at times, I was quite nervous getting up to go to the loo in the dark. But while the supernatural suspense kept me turning pages into the small hours, what makes this book such a satisfying experience overall is the exquisite rendering of the minutiae of human relationships.
The missed glance, the tilted head, the nibbled fingernail… All the tiny details by which we signal our emotions and connections, are almost forensically described, but with such delicacy it doesn’t drag the pace.
Talking of which, the book does start quite slowly and I did wonder around chapter four if she couldn’t get on with it a bit, but then I got in step and appreciated it as a ghost story in the Wilkie Collins style. It has that Victorian quality of wildly gothic events having more impact described by a very restrained narrator, so familiar from Wuthering Heights.
My only tiny criticism is that there are quite long passages, really germane to the plot, where the first person narrator describes in detail events he didn’t witness, without recourse to ‘as Caroline told me later’ devices.
I was amazed that a writer of this calibre could make such a fundamental fiction boo boo – and that her editors didn’t notice – but in the end it was almost a relief that she isn’t totally perfect. I think this flaw actually made me enjoy the book a little more.
The Little Stranger will make a brilliant film – I just don’t want to spend the night on my own after seeing it.
Reading satisfaction: 8
Recommend to best girlfriend: 9
Recommend to best gay friend: 9
Recommend to mother: 9
Recommend to niece: 9
Recommend to man pal: 8
Recommend to Helen Razer: 9
Read on public transport: 9
It's been a diverse career. Not many people have written for Allure and (the late-lamented...) Gourmet mag.
I've been a magazine editor, an op ed columnist on a broadsheet newspaper, and for years covered the fashion shows in Paris, Milan etc.
But while I shifted between the worlds of food, fashion and current affairs, there was one overriding passion: books.
Now I write them - five novels published, with another due out this year, and several books of journalism.
Here I write about them.