The Little Stranger
Riverhead Trade, 2009. 528 pages. $16 (paperback)
I love haunted house stories. They’re such a staple to the Gothic canon that it’s impossible for me to imagine a world without them. I’m also scared of the dark, so it’s very easy for me to get spooked when something pops out from behind a closed door. I gleefully picked up this book when it came out and gobbled it up. I wasn’t disappointed per se; Waters is a highly skilled novelist who can weave a fascinating tale better than most. But there were some elements of the book that left me feeling edgy and a little unfulfilled. I suppose that’s the mark of a good haunted house story.
Doctor Faraday is a charming, though duplicitous, narrator. The trend of women novelists writing books from a middle-aged man’s perspective (Elizabeth Kostova also did it in The Swan Thieves) makes me a bit uncomfortable. I don’t know why this bothers me; male novelists have been using women characters since forever and I don’t have the same reaction. I guess it’s because the men in these novels are all so … creepy, intentionally or otherwise. I certainly wouldn’t want to be left in a room alone with them. Every time the female characters talk to them I just want to get out of the book; nothing good can come from it.
Sarah Waters has made her reputation writing novels with strong female leads. Her stories (or sororo-novels) complicate our ideas of gender and sexuality. Waters writes, as Amazon calls it, lesbian Victoriana; I think it’s a bit more complicated than that, but you get the idea.
The Little Stranger’s female lead, Caroline Ayres, carries the novel. Faraday is weird and creepy, but it is Caroline who provides the emotional core of the novel. Caroline is complicated, natch, and Faraday just doesn’t know what to do with her. Heterosexual relationships in Waters are never cut and dry, and it is in their tense slow-dance where the tension in the novel builds.
I can’t say much more without giving away too much of the plot. Suffice to say that if you pick up this novel, expect to feel uneasy. You won’t be disappointed.