>> Monday, April 09, 2012
In a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to a patient at Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the Georgian house, once grand and handsome, is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, the clock in its stable yard permanently fixed at twenty to nine. Its owners – mother, son and daughter – are struggling to keep pace with a changing society, as well as with conflicts of their own.The Little Stranger was my reading group's choice for March. I quite fancied a creepy ghost story, plus, I'd heard many good things about Waters, and hadn't read her yet.
But are the Ayreses haunted by something more sinister than a dying way of life? Little does Dr Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become entwined with his.
Dr. Faraday is a GP practising in rural England right after WWII. As the book starts, his concerns are mundane: how to get the local gentry to become his patients, since they all seem to go for the other doctors, as well as a nagging worry about the upcoming introduction of the National Health Service, and whether he will be completely ruined by it.
These are the main things on his mind until the fateful day when he's called to the local big house, Hundreds Hall, to have a look at the last remaining maid. There's nothing wrong with young Betty, who is just uncomfortable in the house and wants to go home. But there's plenty wrong with Hundreds Hall and its occupants, the Ayres.
Dr. Faraday's mother used to be a maid at the Hall when he was a child, and he remembers it as a place of grace and beauty. But now money's tight and the new Labour government has no sympathy for families like the Ayres, so like so many other grand families, they're finding it impossible to continue living in the style they've been accustomed to. The house is crumbling and there's no money for repairs, so bits of the surrounding land are being sold every few months to the council just to survive.
Mrs. Ayres is trying as hard as she can to keep up appearances, and her daughter Caroline does as much as she can to help. The son, Roderick, recovering from a mental breakdown after the war as well as a bad leg, is struggling to deal with the demands of running the farm. It's into that situation that Dr. Faraday walks in and slowly becomes a friend to the family.
This friendship becomes closer when Rod becomes convinced strange things are happening in the house, and the women seek Dr. Faraday's help. Things get worse and worse, though, and then they get even worse, as one after the other, all members of the household seem to start believing all sorts of twaddle, as far as the very sensible and hard-headed Dr. Faraday is concerned.
I absolutely loved the first half of this book. Well-developed characters, fascinating hints of the creepy and a really interesting insight into life right after the war, and the decline of the old upper classes.
It's a leisurely-paced book, though, so when I got to about the halfway point things were only starting to kick off. Still, I wasn't minding that at all, and I was practically rubbing my hands with glee thinking about what might come. Interestingly enough, that evening I met a couple of friends from the book club to watch a football game, and we had a quick chat about how we were doing with the book. Both were struggling. One had read a little less than I had, the other a little more, and neither was enjoying the book one bit. They felt it was slow, nothing was happening and it wasn't scary, whereas I felt the slow pace gave us enough time to know the characters and that quite a few really, really creepy things were happening. And then during the book club discussion, most people seemed to agree with my friends. So be warned that even for this first half, mine is probably the minority opinion.
Unfortunately, my feelings for the book turned sour in the second half. I felt Waters lost control of her plot, and things got much too crazy, verging on nonsensical. By the end, there were too many things which were left hanging, people having behaved in ways that were weirdly out-of-character without any explanation given at the end, and especially, the whole ghost thing. There was a big mish-mash of weird things happening, but not a satisfying explanation of why. We came up with all sorts of interpretations during the discussion at the book group, but for everything to make sense, it would have to be a case of at least two completely independent kinds of weirdness. For a ghost story, that's just bad form, verging on cheating.
Still, even with that second half there were plenty of things I did like, especially the character studies and the social history elements. I liked the Ayres' well enough and a part of me felt really sorry for their plight. The bigger part of me, however, is a socialist and went "Oh, boo-hoo, so there's no inherited wealth left and you would have to get a job to get by? And I'm supposed to feel sorry for you because of this, why?" But what I thought was really interesting was how Dr. Faraday was clearly the party most interested in maintaining the social order, even though he was a self-made man and had grown up in quite challenging conditions. I guess he was picturing himself as master of the manor, and felt cheated by the idea that there would be no manor to be master of. He does become fairly unlikeable at the end, taking on quite stalkerish characteristics, and that was remarkable to read, as it was believable, and we were seeing it happen through his point of view, since he was the story's narrator.
A flawed book, but I'm glad I read it.
MY GRADE: A B-.