Friday, 15 June 2012

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

I’ve briefly touched on Sarah Waters’s trilogy of Victorian novels, specifically Tipping the Velvet, but The Little Stranger, although still in the realm of historical fiction, sees her in the twentieth century, an area she has also visited in The Night Watch. With its sense of dread and litany of things that go bump in the night, I was put in mind of my favourite of her books, Afinity, although this is a very different beast, with elements of the country house thriller, and a knowing analysis of the decline of the upper class in Britain immediately after the Second World War.

Rural GP Dr Faraday is called to the Georgian pile in his village, Hundreds Hall, which has been the home of the Ayers family for 200 years. The remaining Ayers, mother, daughter Caroline and son Roderick, are living in penury, the house collapsing around them, as death duties, taxes and the new Labour government of Clement Atlee do their best to drive them into the ground. The stress has started to get to them, especially Roderick, badly wounded in the war and already of a distinctly nervous disposition. The gradual build up of seemingly unexplained events – objects moving around, ghostly sounds – has served to finally tip him over the edge, or at least to the bottle.

Faraday has been invited to supper at Hundreds Hall, but he notes with disdain that Roderick has been at the sauce:

There was something else, which troubled me more. His whole manner had changed. Where before he’d carried himself in the tense, hunted way of someone braced against disaster, now he seemed to
slouch, as if barely caring whether disaster struck or not. While Mrs Ayers and Caroline and I chatted together, with an attempt at normality, of county matters and local gossip, he sat the whole time in his chair, watching us from under his brows but saying nothing. He rose only once, and that was to go to the drinks table to top up his glass of gin and French. And from the way he handled the bottles, and from the stiffness of the cocktail he mixed, I realised that he must have been drinking steadily for some time.

After a dreadful dinner when the young man insults their guest, Faraday insists on seeing him in his room before he goes. It’s for medical reasons, of course, not just so that he can give Rod a piece of his mind:

“Why are you doing this to yourself? The estate’s falling to pieces around you, and look at you! You’ve had gin, vermouth, wine, and,” – I nodded to his glass, which was sitting on a mess of papers at his elbow – “What’s in there? Gin again?” He cursed quietly. “Jesus! What of it? Can’t a bloke get lit up now and then?” I said, “Not a bloke in your position, no.”

He leaves in a foul mood, and Roderick goes back to the bottle. But the spooky goings on are about to take a turn for the worse. As Faraday sleeps off his supper that night ...something dreadful happened out at Hundreds Hall.

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