This story by Sarah Waters is based in rural Warwickshire, England and centers around Hundreds Hall, an old, decaying Georgian house whose occupants are fighting against time to keep the house and soon, their sanity. The Little Stranger was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize 2009.
The book is narrated by one, Dr. Faraday, a doctor who has considerably few clients One day Dr. Faraday is called over to the house to attend to the housemaid because the Ayres’ family doctor is otherwise engaged. This incidental event inexorably intertwines Dr. Faraday’s fate with the Ayres family. Dr. Faraday has always been in awe of the grand house. As a boy, Dr. Faraday remembers coming to the Hall and carving out a piece of the panelling for the sheer pleasure of owning something that once belonged to the house. The Ayres family currently living at Hundreds consists of Mrs Ayres, her handicapped son, Roderick, her daughter, Caroline and their dog Gyp.
Dr. Faraday’s involvement with the family increases to such an extent that he is soon a close friend of the family and is once invited to a dinner party at the Hundreds. Invited are neighbors who have been old friends of the family and a new family who moved into Standish, another Georgian house nearby. The Baker-Hydes are a rich family who have moved in from the city and they bring their eight year-old daughter to the party. The tranquil atmosphere of the party staggers with the addition of the newcomers. And suddenly, a usually quiet Gyp bites the little girl, Gillian. Her face is ripped, a gash opening up across the side of her face.
The family recedes into grief and anguish. Even after Gyp is put down, the queer events continue with Roderick eventually going mad. He blames his room setting itself on fire and in short, Hundreds Hall for turning on him. It is insinuated that Gyp going beserk and the weird burn marks in Roderick’s room are because of a ghostly presence.
This is where the story starts falling apart. Soon Mrs. Ayres goes mad and keeps seeing her dead daughter who makes her cut herself. Eventually she kills herself on the orders of said dead daughter. Roderick has been committed to a mental facility and Caroline is soon the only one left in the house. Dr. Faraday and Caroline decide to get married. Then suddenly Caroline decides to not get married and sell the house. She wants to live her life, a life denied to her because of Roderick’s war injury and her mother’s insistence. She doesn’t wish to keep maintaining the house against all odds. With her bags packed and Dr. Faraday’s heart broken, she is ready to leave when she falls off some unguarded stairs to her death.
The story of The Little Stranger, ends with two unresolved deaths, one unexplained neurosis and Dr. Faraday’s undying love for Hundreds Hall all suggesting paranormal activity. The writer hasn’t explicitly argued that a ghost is responsible for all the events. He plans to keep the house in shape as much as he can and starts to realize that it is haunted. Misbehaving speaking tubes and nursery doors keep the reader looking for an explanation which is conspicuous in its absence. The only reference is evidenced in a conversation between Dr. Faraday and a fellow doctor about a “dream-self detaching itself,…a psychic force which takes the shape of deceased loved ones.”
The style of the book is, without a doubt, elegant and statuesque. The description of the events likewise unhindered by fancy prose. It is a dated novel which does throw up interesting material. This somewhat makes up for the lack of a strong story but the end is dissatisfying.
The most interesting conclusion I drew from it was that Dr. Faraday himself is the ghost of Hundreds Hall and he is working off some neurosis of his own. Man Booker shortlisted books have a reputation for being slightly depressing novels but I never thought they would disregard story entirely. Thankfully the 2009 Man Booker was awarded to Hilary Mantel for Wolf Hall.
Though thoroughly disillusioned as to the criteria set for Man Booker shortlisted books, I am determined to go through more, simply to write a program to generate such books en masse.
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