Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Little Stranger - Sarah Waters

It is the late 1940's and Hundreds Hall is, much like England, a shadow of it's former self. Colonel Ayres is dead and the Hall is inhabited by his widow and surviving two children Roderick and Caroline. The Hall has sunk into disrepair and ruin as money has run out, the family selling of land to sustain them. Things are changing in England, the old order is being swept away - with all that implies for the social order of society.

Dr Faraday is a country doctor who would seem to typify this social change, his mother was a servant at the Hall, his father a grocer's boy. His parent's gave everything they had to see him achieve their ambitions for him but he is a lonely middle aged bachelor in the village of Lidcote until called to the Hall in his colleague's absence to tend to Betty the 14 year old live in maidservant. Betty is faking her illness in the hopes of being sent home as the house gives her 'the horrors' but Faraday's attendance on her brings him into contact with the Ayers family - Roderick who was with the RAF in the war and suffered extensive burns in a crash, Caroline who 'was noticeable plain, over-tall for a woman, with thickish legs and ankles' and Mrs Ayers herself who, despite wartime austerity and rationing still manages to display good breeding and 'a Frenchified air'. As the four take tea together in the collapsing house their social differences are brought to the fore as Caroline and Roderick recall stories of past family servants and Dr Faraday feels 'the faintest stirring of a dark dislike'.

Matters take a more supernatural turn when the family dog has to be destroyed following an incident with a child and Roderick becomes more withdrawn. Burn marks begin to appear on the walls and it appears the house itself starts to hound the family with unexplained noises, fires and writing on the walls

'Rod stood perfectly still, in that still room, and watched as the shaving-glass shuddered again, then rocked, then began to inch it's way across the washing-stand towards him....It moved with a jerky halting gait, the unglazed underside of it's porcelain base making a frightful, grating sound on the polished marble surface.'

Sarah Waters has created a Gothic ghost story which will have your hair standing on it's end. This is achieved not with blood and guts and gore but with supreme confidence and suspense. All the elements of the ghost story are here, an isolated country house and a finite cast of characters with questions about their motives and soundness of mind abounding. But this is so much more than just a ghost story, the book charts the decline of the great country houses after the war and indeed the decline of the landed gentry as the working and middle classes loose faith with the old order and the new phenomenon of the self made man and new money begin their inexorable rise.

As the story unfolds and we watch the fall of the House of Ayers who will be left in possession of the land represented by Hundreds Hall, who will be the victor in the class battle unfolding in England at the time and, more important, who will be last man standing as one by one the various characters succumb to whatever haunts the Hall and who or what is responsible?

No comments:

Post a Comment