Sunday, 6 September 2009

Phantasms of the Living

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters is one of those novels that might be better enjoyed if the reader comes to it without the knowledge that this is a ghost story. Although it does have strange goings on at the big house, it has a lot more going for it than just a few ghostly chills. The story is told to the reader by a country doctor, who documents a year in his life, slowly becoming embroiled in the struggles of the last three members of the local landed gentry. A glamour of nostalgia draws him to their manor house even though its best days are long past. The old and the new collide again again throughout the story; from the doctor's country practice to the proposed NHS; superstitions and science; traditional remedies and the doctor's new treatments; the old manor encroached by new cheap housing; even poetry gets a mention - "What's wrong with nice long lines and a jaunty rhythm?" asks the old lady of the house, comparing Tennyson to Emily Dickinson. An air of melancholy slowly builds into foreboding before the first terrible event rips into the family. It's all very well written with lots of little undertones that keep the narrative interesting. The old matriarch lost in her memories and clinging to a world that has largely been washed away. The young son, scarred inside and out by the horrors of war, driven too far by the responsibility expected of a male heir. The doctor falling in love, but with the young daughter, or the house, or an ideal and too quick to fit everything into what is rational or reasonable. I lived in Warwickshire when I was away at college back in the early 1980s and I felt that the place depicted here could just as easily have been any rural area in an English county. The book doesn't really work as a ghost story. It's too long and not paced right but I don't think that matters, because I don't think the book was ever even trying to fit into that genre.

No comments:

Post a Comment