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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
Un-put-downable-ness: 9
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


  1. Hi Maggie,

    It's such a feast to read one favourite author's (that's you!) view on another favourite book.

    I loved this novel - although I'm a little embarrassed to say I didn't pick up the first/second person glitch ... I think you've summed up a great read really well (and yes, my Ma and I had a great debate on which actors would play the characters in the inevitable film).

    Really enjoying these new posts - please keep going!

    g+g x

  2. I read this post a couple of days ago and thought it sounded like an interesting book then walked into the local library this afternoon and it was sitting on the 'returns' shelf. I grabbed it in a not-altogether-polite manner and am looking forward to settling in with it over the next few days. Thanks!

  3. I haven't read this yet- I haven't really got into Waters (I tend to devour authors work altogether once I like one). I do find though that when authors find that magic combination of sales and critical success their editors perhaps become a bit afraid of scaring them and things can become a bit overlong. Not that I can talk of course but I have noticed... Nice to find your blog- found you via twitter

  4. Great post, Maggie...Now I confess I felt a tad (just a tad) letdown by The Little Stranger. I agree, the voice is superb and I love old-fashioned ghost stories. I watched her handling of POV with interest and thought she strained it but (in my recollection and I read it a while back) there was always some kind of rationale.. but yes, cheering indeed, if she mucks it up too!
    I think the ending felt lacklustre but then I suppose after the fireworks of Fingersmith et al,maybe I was expecting too much. I think if this had been by anyone other than Sarah Waters I would have given it 11 out of 10 but, from her (one of my all-time fave authors) it got an 8.
    Now off to hunt for good reads on the rest of your blog - I am gasping for a good book..
    Jane (Alexander)xx

  5. I'm reading this book now - nearly finished it but enjoying it so much , I don't want to. Quite spooky, but thrilling. I love Sarah Waters - nearly everything she has written. My favourite is Fingersmith.
    This is a great blog - I will read the Fay Weldon next.

  6. Thank you so much for lovely encouraging comments! Maggie xxx

  7. I so enjoyed this book! I thought it captured the era perfectly. Nobody does ghost stories quite like the Victorians, but I think she totally cracked it. He was an extremely odd (and, to me, creepy and unlikeable) narrator. Can the man not take a hint? I love a book that can still leave so many questions unanswered, without making me want to hurl it away in disgust.

  8. So I'm a bit behind the times but when I find a good blog I like to go back to the beginning. And I love love love(d) your Good Weekend column Maggie and am seriously missing it, thank god for the Internet. Anyway, I'm dying to know what you though of the ending? Whodunnit? My book club did this book a few months ago and we couldn't agree. Spoiler alert: I think it was the good doctor all along. I loved that you could read this book on two levels, either as a ghost story, or, if you don't believe in ghosts, as the product of a twisted mind (the narrator's) and his obsession with the house.