I’m hesitant to be rough on Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. I recently read a critique of amateur book reviewers, excuse me, I mean plebs. My favorite bit of Miller’s article is when she zeroes in on an unfavorable review of Cloud Atlas that more-or-less summarizes my own opinion.
As to The Little Stranger, Miller writes:
I’ve learned to accept that a good number of the books I adore are in some part simply unintelligible to many readers. Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, a ghost story narrated by a doctor obsessed with the local stately home and the decaying upper-class family that possesses it, is one of my recent favorites. Reader review after reader review complains that “nothing happens” in The Little Stranger, which is manifestly untrue. This dissonance, however, illustrates something important about how plots work.
The lament that “nothing happens” in a novel often means that the main character or characters don’t drive the novel’s action or events; things happen, but they happen to characters rather than being caused by them. People want to read about characters they like and identify with, which often means characters who take charge of their destinies instead of passively moping around being “whiny” (another common complaint). Unlikeable characters take a close second place to boredom (“I just couldn’t get into it”) among the top reasons readers offer for dunning a book with one-star reviews. What literary critics seem to most prize—beautiful sentences—barely seem to count at all. Reader reviews will occasionally praise an author’s style, but so many of them describe The Da Vinci Code as “well-written” that to me the phrase has come to seem meaningless.
So I can’t say that “nothing happens” in The Little Stranger lest I condemn my opinion to the same pit as those uninformed reviews written by people who think Dan Brown is a Nobel Laureate. My most popular review mocks Brown’s Inferno, but even so: I hated Cloud Atlas, said The Paying Guests is boring, and if I ever review The Catcher in the Rye I’ll overuse “whiny” so hard people will make a drinking game of it. I’m on thin ice here. How can I redeem myself?
Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger is a mood piece that exposes the tortured inner lives of its characters via a malicious poltergeist. We open with a young Faraday visiting Hundreds Hall where his mother works. She slips him into the house to catch a glimpse of the finery inside, but he pries loose a decorative, plaster acorn from the wall:
It was simply that, in admiring the house, I wanted to possess a piece of it—or rather, as if the admiration itself, which I suspected a more ordinary child would not have felt, entitled me to it. I was like a man, I suppose, wanting a lock of hair from the head of a girl he had suddenly and blindingly become enamored of.” (3)
You can’t beat an on-the-nose statement in which Faraday defaces the house he claims to admire for his own need to possess it. Gosh, I hope the next 509 pages explore this theme often; I’d hate for such a clever bit of characterization to be upstaged by ghost(s). Personally, I read to gain a deeper insight into the human condition and store up beautiful sentences.
With his acorn squirreled away, young Faraday becomes Dr. Faraday. When subbing for a fellow physician, he’s called to Hundreds Hall. His excitement about revisiting the house is replaced by dismay when he sees its current state:
Sections of the lovely weathered edgings seemed to have fallen completely away, so that the house’s uncertain Georgian outline was even more tentative than before. Ivy had spread, then patchily died, and hung like tangled rat’s-tail hair. The steps leading up to the broad front door were cracked, with weeds growing lushly up through the seams. (5)
Inside, he finds the Ayres family is clinging to their former status, but only just. Dr. Faraday has been called to look in on the maid:
My mother, my sister, and I tend to manage without doctors as a rule. We muddle through with colds and headaches. But I gather that neglecting the servants is a capital offense these days; they’re to get better treatment than us, apparently. (6)
Roderick’s bitterness is understandable given his change in fortune: The house shrinks as more and more rooms are shut up, unable to be heated or maintained by his sister and their single servant. The Ayres family—Roderick, his sister Caroline, and old Mrs. Ayres—are uncomfortable with their receding position in a post-war England. The Ayres family is not built to adapt, unlike Dr. Faraday, who is keen to enjoy the new social order and become a familiar guest at dinner even though he carries a trace amount of disgust towards his new friends:
And I felt a flicker of impatience with them—the faintest stirring of a dark dislike—and my pleasure in the lovely room was slightly spoiled. Perhaps it was the peasant blood in me, rising. But Hundreds Hall had been made and maintained, I thought, by the very people they were laughing at now. After two hundred years, those people had begun to withdraw their labour, their belief in the house; and the house was collapsing, like a pyramid of cards. Meanwhile, here the family sat, still playing gaily at gentry life, with the chipped stucco on their walls, and their Turkey carpets worn to the weave, and their riveted China… (27)
Disgust and dissatisfaction form the heart of the poltergeist plot. The first supernatural events are ambiguous, but the Ayreses aren’t satisfied with Dr. Faraday’s logical explanations (neither is the reader). The creepy (and widely-spaced) events pile up, becoming increasingly personal to provoke Roderick, Mrs. Ayres, and Caroline, while Dr. Faraday remains largely immune.
This is the part of the book that would tempt a lesser reviewer to say “nothing happens,” but while it may seem that very little happens, there’s a mystery afoot. The curious goings-on are being fueled by some energy, from some personal unhappiness or dissatisfaction, but from whom? The reader is treated to long, wonderful passages to describe the precise decrepitude of the old house, the former way of life it nurtured, and the sadness of those who died within its walls. Much time is spent on Dr. Faraday’s obsession with the house and family; he’s intent on carving out a place for himself and is pained by the thought that the estate might be sold in pieces. Going back to Miller’s comments about beautiful sentences, I’m obligated to say: This passage is full of beautiful sentences, one after another, and they will be enough to sustain you IF you are capable of appreciating great writing.
As for the narrator, Dr. Faraday, he’s unsatisfying but not in the way Miller hits upon in her bit about reviewers who dislike passive narrators. Much of the book happens via flashback as Dr. Faraday is often called to the house after a bit of weirdness (he’s rarely a witness) and debriefed on the details. And, if you approach this book as a sort of mystery, you’ll find that Dr. Faraday gets in your way repeatedly. He doesn’t believe in a lot that goes on in the house, ascribing it to a kind of infectious mania; therefore, he never asks any of the interesting questions or presses as hard as he might otherwise. Inquisitive readers will find themselves trapped behind the logical thinking of a man who is not interested in the same details as they are. Is it gauche to imply that I wanted something beyond pretty words arranged in a pleasant order? I wanted the words to create something in my head beyond still-life portraits of a musty house.
Instead, hints at the poltergeist’s nature come from what it eventually accomplishes. There are an awful lot of words and pages spent on a wait-and-see plot. Oh darn, I missed the point again didn’t I? I mean: I love all the beautiful sentences and never felt a pang of impatience! Plots are for simpletons.
Overall: 3.2 I never knew there were so many ways to describe the same details and themes over, and over, and over within a single work. Waters’ creativity is laudable and impressive. The Little Stranger is a whodunit with a pesky poltergeist. I’d knock it harder, but I really want to be taken seriously.
Translation: It’s so good that I want to share it. I can’t wait to give my copy to someone!