Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Not long ago, Simon @ Savidge Reads reminded his readers of the joys of curling up with a spooky ghost story, especially one that takes place in an old gothic mansion. Man, you've gotta love these types of books. These were the types of stories I read in my youth, and I occasionally find myself hankering for one. His recommendation to fill the void? The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters. Waters is one of those authors, like Daphne du Maurier, that I've always intended to read but just hadn't gotten around to it. I was delighted to find that my library even carried this one on audio.
At the story's center is majestic Hundreds Hall. Our narrator, Dr. Farraday, has been mesmerized by the estate since he was a young boy, when his mother worked there as a nursery maid. Since then, his parents sacrificed all to put him through college. He received his medical degree, clawed his way out of his lower social status into that of lower-middle class, and now runs his own house call practice as he drifts into middle age, unmarried and frumpish.
When Dr. Farraday has the opportunity to visit Hundreds Hall to treat their housekeeper, he jumps at the chance. To his disappointment, he find the once-stately manor in severe disrepair, overgrown with weeds and crumbling down around its inhabitants. The maid, he finds, is feigning an illness, with the hopes of having a good excuse to leave this house that just isn't quite right, and gives her the creeps. Dr. Farraday passes her off as a silly teenager.
The house is now occupied by the widowed Mrs. Ayres, her son Rod, who arrived back home from WWII burned and crippled, and her daughter Caroline, a plain and big-boned girl, plus two maids. The family, once the pillars of the community, has literally been left behind by the world. Sequestered in the dilapidated, isolated Hundreds Hall, they have failed to adapt to post-war society, shunning anything modern. Farraday endears himself to the family, though, and starts to become not only the family doctor, but a friend - probably the family's only friend. He even goes so far as to believe he has fallen in love with Caroline.
Then strange things start to occur. Ringing telephones with nobody on the other end, mysterious burn marks, scratches in the wall paint, fluttering noises at night...all harmless but perplexing. Then things take a dark turn - an accident with the family dog, a fire, madness and worse. What exactly is going on here? Dr. Farraday describes it all in a doctor's clinical, factual manner, explaining away the occurrences as the side-effects of a neglected house, nerves, and a flighty, mischievous housekeeper. But can we really trust our narrator? Are his motives pure? Is this family cursed, like the Kennedy's? Or is there something more sinister at work?
I must say, I am dazzled by Ms. Waters' writing. While this is a ghost story, she exercises so much restraint in the storytelling that it is more of a subtle mist that creeps into the crooks and crannies of your mind rather than an over-the-top spook fest. She delicately weaves intrigue, social commentary, human inter-relationships, motive and the supernatural together to give us a complete satisfying package. While the story ends with finality and loose threads "officially" accounted for, my mind was full of questions and theories. Boy, what I wouldn't give to participate in a book club discussion of this one!
The narrator of the audio is spectacular. I found myself, as I was with "The Thirteenth Tale", drawn in and immersed up to my ears in the delicious British-ness of it all. I'm told that Ms. Waters has many more treasures in her portfolio, some worthy of Top Books Ever lists. Any recommendations on the next one I should read?
5 out of 5 stars