“Perhaps there is a limit to the grieving that the human heart can do. As when one adds salt to a tumbler of water, there comes a point where simply no more will be absorbed.”
The Little Stranger was, it appears, shortlisted for the Booker Prize a few years ago. Let no one say that I do not read literary fiction.
It is, simply put, a Gothic novel: a postwar Mysteries of Udolpho, a self-consciously modern Turn of the Screw. Set in 1949 (thereabouts), it follows the (mis)fortunes of the remnants of the Ayres family, inhabitants of the vast and crumbling ancestral pile Hundreds Hall, impossible to maintain, overshadowing, as all self-respecting Gothic piles do, its faded inhabitants. And, as all Gothic novels do, The Little Stranger gives us an examination of class in a time of change. Ghostliness abounds (or tries to); ambiguities proliferate; narrators are unreliable; intertextuality is rife.
The point I’m trying to make is that, technically, The Little Stranger is the perfect Gothic novel. Waters surely knows what she’s doing in the genre: you can feel the whole weight of Gothic tradition when she uses the word “uncanny”; the plot in retrospect has the inevitability of an author utterly at home in the conventions of what she’s writing. (This isn’t to say that The Little Stranger is cliched, exactly; only that Waters has successfully grasped how the Gothic is supposed to work, and written her novel accordingly.)
The only problem here is that the book is boring.
Part of the issue here is Our Narrator, the obviously-named Dr Faraday, a country doctor whose refusal to believe in, or even be impressed by, the supernatural events related by the inhabitants of Hundreds is positively maddening. Faraday is dull, rational, characterless, and, by the last fifty pages, violently unlikable. To be fair to Waters, he’s meant to be; he is the Gothic unreliable narrator, the generator of ambiguity. But knowing this, although it may perhaps have provided some intellectual pleasure at thinking around his deliberate obliviousness, did not make the novel any more enjoyable. It also completely precluded, at least for me, the building of any kind of atmosphere: how can you have atmosphere when you’re trapped in the mind of a character with no feel for it? And atmosphere is one of the few things – the only thing, really – that can rescue a book with as little happening in it as this has. When you’ve read 150 pages and the only thing of note that has happened is a diagnosis of fake illness, you know you’re in for a slog.
I was promised by the glowing reviews on the blurb a really juicy, intelligent ghost story. That never really materialised: instead, what I got was – what? A meditation on insanity, perhaps, and the future of the upper classes, prepared with a mild dilution of Bizarre Happenings. It’s a textbook Gothic novel, but it’s got no soul. In its technical perfection, it loses exactly what makes the Gothic Gothic. Intelligent? Yes. Enjoyable? No.