In Sarah Waters’ latest novel ‘The Little Stranger’, the first person narrator Dr Faraday relates the story of what happened at a crumbling county house called Hundreds Hall in Warwickshire, just after the war. The family living there have lost their wealth, the world around them is changing and they are no longer shown the kind of respect once taken for granted, simply for being wealthy and being upper class. The book starts with a brief introduction to Hundreds Hall (from then on referred to as ‘Hundreds’) and how the narrator relates to the house and its family: his mother used to be a maid there and he had visited with her, and even as a child had been impressed by its grandeur, acutely aware of his own, lower class background. Meanwhile, of course he has become one of the local doctors, although he is very worried about the introduction of the National Health Service and what it might do to his patient base.
The doctor is called out to the sickbed of a new, very young maid called Betty, who was taken on to help with the day-to-day running of the house, serving food, bringing cups of tea to the two mistresses, mother and daughter and the son, Roderick. Betty in reality fakes her illness, and confides that she is scared of the house, because she senses that something strange is going on.
The daughter Caroline, although not the world’s most glamorous woman, rather the opposite, proves irresistible to the doctor, she becomes inextricably linked to his attraction to Hundreds Hall, its history and his own relationship with it, his desire to make good. Caroline is introduced as follows:
‘I’d only ever seen her at a distance before, at county events, or on the streets of Warwick and Leamington. She was older than Roderick [her brother], twenty-six or twenty-seven, and I’d regularly heard her referred to locally as ‘rather hearty’, a ‘natural spinster’, a ‘clever girl’ – in other words she was noticeably plain, over-tall for a woman with thickish legs and ankles.’
The story of the haunted house Hundreds unfolds through the eyes of Dr Faraday, although he remains rather an aloof person, very fifty-ish: we don’t even get to know his first name, throughout the book he is addressed and referred to by others as ‘Dr. Faraday’, whereas the occupants of Hundreds are Mrs Ayres, Caroline and Roderick. The fifties formalities are kept to.
What I find interesting about this book is how we watch the story unravel as if through someone else’s glasses, always a step removed, we have to take his word for it, even though he himself never actually witnesses any of the crucial ‘happenings’, and professes to be a down-to-earth, rational person who does not believe in ghosts. Yet, everything he relates seems to indicate that the occupants of the home definitely do believe in some kind of appearance of ‘the little stranger’ [the book makes clear who this is] and events seem to justify them in their suspicions. Nevertheless, the doctor will never know what really happened because he is never there when nasty things happen, they are always related to him afterwards and he relates them to us, the readers.
When watching Tony Blair at the Chilcot inquiry yesterday, and listening to reports on his performance on the news, I could not help but draw a parallel with Waters’ story. TB’s performance, his narrative of what happened (heard so many times before as well!) is very convincing; he is sure that how he saw the chain of events evolving with respect to Iraq is how it really was. There is no doubt in his mind, he professes, that what he did was right, it was his ‘decision’ based on the facts as he knew them to be (again, retrieved from other ‘witnesses’).
Truth is a very evasive concept in all of this – and of course I am aware of that – after all, during my undergraduate studies in philosophy a great amount of time was spent on reading and debating philosophers who questioned the concept of ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’ and ‘knowledge and belief’. What is truth? What did really happen? What do we base our decisions on?
We see the world from our own perspective, and don’t I know it. It is very hard to escape core beliefs, those concepts that were instilled when you were a child, values that were embedded into your own perception of who you are. They came in with your baby food, repeated and lived endlessly, part of the routine. I spent years trying to shake off the dogmatism of Calvinism, the fear of a god that would strike me dead if I did not live exactly as prescribed. Truth and reality are very different for those who have a dogmatic belief and are convinced of the existence of what I tend to refer to in my mind as ‘parallel worlds’, a world in which you are judged and led by other powers.
So, yes, I was fascinated by The Little Stranger, even if some refer to it as a ghost story, implying that that is all it is. I think it is much more than that and there are nuances that only really good writers are able to weave throughout a well-written story. After finishing it, I even wondered about the narrator: was he honest in what he related to us? Did he really sleep in drunken stupor when the last and final calamity strikes in Hundreds Hall? We will never know, but it surely is the sign of a good and well written story that it keeps you engaged, well after you have finished reading it.
Towards the end, after some 200 pages I wanted the story to move faster, and the added descriptions and evocations of the house as murky, mysterious, falling apart, however well written, became a bit too drawn out for my liking.
Nevertheless, if you are looking for a well written story (and I don’t want to call it a ghost story, it is not a genre book in that sense) that keeps you on your toes, makes you think, this is a very good read. Yes, it makes you think about truth and such things, very appropriate when there are so many witnesses called up to the Chilcot inquiry (in England). I don’t actually think we will ever know the truth and will carry on speculating and doubting, just as we doubt ‘the little stranger’.
Simon Jenkins in the Guardian today refers to Tony Blair, as the ghost that came walking in… how appropriate.