Becoming a stranger to fiction

In honour of World Book Day on Thursday, and as part of a seemingly annual tradition, I’m going to post some book related posts this week. I’d say ‘reviews’, only I’ve read a shockingly low quantity of fiction since starting Vicar School, and I suspect you won’t be interested in a review of current read The Art of Biblical Narrative. [Though interestingly, the thrust of this essay is whether the Old Testament benefits from being read as story and applying literary criticism techniques.]

This post is a review, and one I think I wrote nearly 6 months ago, but never got around to sharing! The book in question is Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, which was a gift via Kate and a giveaway on her (excellent) book review blog. (In fact, it’s one of two books I acquired that way last summer – the other’s languishing on my TBR pile.)

I’ve read most of Waters’ earlier work – including the notorious Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith – but had never been a massive fan, until I read The Night Watch. This, unlike the others, was set during WW2 and in and about some very familiar parts of London. Plus, it has a non-linear story line and involves the criss-crossing paths of several different people – two story-telling devices which I really enjoy.

Because The Little Stranger was set in a similar era (the immediate post-war years) I had high hopes for it, but I have to say that I was a little disappointed. This was probably owing to two factors:
  1. It had a male narrator. I think I’d assumed that the narrator would be female because in all the other Waters books I’ve read, it has been. I’m not sure why this disappointed me – perhaps because I found the female protagonist fascinating and wanted to know more about her, but if she had told the story things would have been quite different.
  2. It’s essentially a ghost story and I’m not spectacularly keen on ghost stories. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a scary read, it’s just in the best tradition of Victorian gothic writing (a little like Joanne Harris’ early book The Evil Seed which is basically about vampires).
However, I did enjoy reading it. The context is fascinating and I think one that many English people could identify with or at least have some empathy towards. The narrator is a local GP (on the eve of the creation of the NHS) who grew up in the local community, but very much in the working class. Throughout the novel, he is wrecked with class anxiety regarding how his colleagues, the locals and the aristocracy perceive him, yet the plot revolves around his growing relationship with a well-to-do family who inhabit a mansion that has seen better days. It captures the transition of the times well – the doctor fears the new NHS, believing patients would prefer doctors from ‘good’ backgrounds; the family has lost most of its money because of inheritance tax and the war; its son has returned from battle mentally and physically scarred; and the daughter is ‘on the shelf’ at 28.

The ‘little stranger’ of the title is a mysterious presence within the house, who makes itself known in a variety of ways – strange marks, noises, fires and the supposed insanity of its occupants. The problem is that I have little imagination for this kind of supernatural being. In a very rational way, I spent much of the book wondering the house’s occupants didn’t just leave. 

As I read the book within a couple of days, I can safely say that I enjoyed it – I guess I was just expecting something different. The problem is possibly more that I enjoyed The Night Watch so much, and it really was the realistic kind of novel that I enjoy, that this was something of an anti-climax. If you can deal with ghosts though, it’s quite refreshing to read about them in a more modern context. 

Comments

  1. It is testament to how sad I have become that the Biblical Narrative’s book really excited me! Ha ha!

  2. Glad you (mostly) enjoyed it. I too found it hard not to be all rational and wonder why the family stayed. I’m worried that I’ve grown out of ghost stories!

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