As I make my way towards this coming winter of discontent, my reading is as slow and endless as February. Here I am, in early December, and I’ve read one book this past month. One. Sad. On the other hand, it’s a GREAT book. I read Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, what you’d get if Shirley Jackson had written Downton Abbey, crossed it with James’s “The Turn of the Screw”, and tossed in a touch of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”.
The Little Stranger is one of the most compelling and disorienting novels I’ve ever read and I kind of loved it. At times, I resented it, felt it was built only on relentless plot that remained impenetrable. Yet I couldn’t put it down and resented work, family obligation, and mundane household tasks keeping me from sitting down and reading through to its end.
Set in post-WWII Warwickshire, The Little Stranger is narrated by a country doctor, Dr. Faraday. Of humble origins, Faraday’s parents (long dead when the novel opens) gave up everything to educate him and yet, now he is “risen” above their station, he remains at most a modest success, treating his small-town patients’ ordinary ills and keeping an uninspired bachelor apartment above a store. In his late thirties, his life is circumscribed by his practice and the occasional dinner with his partner’s family. All is stodgily quiet until he is called to Hundreds Hall, a Downton-esque estate where his mother worked as a maid when he was a child, to treat the ailing servant-girl, Betty, who, in the end, may or may not be the “little stranger” and whose part in Faraday’s and the Hundreds’s family’s, the Ayreses’, tragedy may have played a part, or not. That is the most maddening and brilliant aspect of Waters’s novel, even reaching its final words, I wasn’t sure exactly what happened, or why. (more…)