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Saturday 10 October 2009

Proclamations of the Red Queen

9th July 2009

Review: Sarah Waters: The Little Stranger (2008)

Posted by: Craig Young

book2.jpgSarah Waters: The Little Stranger: London: Virago: 2008.

Her fifth novel is a new departure for award-winning lesbian historical author and virtuoso Sarah Waters- it doesn’t feature an out lesbian or gay character anywhere in its pages. It is, however, just as compelling as any of her previous work.

Like her earlier Night Watch, The Little Stranger is set shortly after the Second World War. In this case, however, she has revisited the ‘decaying aristocracy’ subgenre of Tennessee Williams and Auberon Waugh. However, Hundreds, her Warwickshire manor house, is far more dilapidated than Brideshead, both architecturally and psychologically. Dr Faraday is a former village working-class grammar school boy made good, and become a doctor. He strikes up friendships with the Ayres family, who live in genteel but almost abject poverty on their visibly deteriorated estate, shortly after the Second World War. Mrs Ayres is the kindly matriarch, still grieving for Susan, her lost daughter. Roderick served in the Second World War, but is both physically and psychologically scarred, and Caroline is a suspiciously assertive WREN officer. All of them try to keep up appearances, but the family and their estate both seem too far gone.

Is Susan, Mrs Ayres firstborn but dead little girl, haunting the Hundreds estate, or is it that Mrs Ayres, Rod and Caroline were all born out of time? Twenty years later, Mrs Ayres might have been able to start a career of her own instead of being forced to obsess over the child she lost earlier. Given the subtle homoerotic undertones of the relationship between Faraday and Rod, there might have been a fully fledged gay relationship, instead of the uneasy surrogate that exists temporarily between Caroline and Faraday toward the close of the book.  Both Caroline and Faraday’s heterosexuality seems forced and unsteady, and Caroline’s independence and assertiveness suggest that she might have found love with another woman if she hadn’t been entrapped by Hundreds.

In a sense, this is a gothic novel, as the forbidding, claustrophobic house inexorably destroys the doomed Ayres family trapped inside it. Waters’ genius is that the events can either be interpreted as supernatural, or psychological. In either case, it is a deeply compelling, feminist-inflected tale of family tragedy. I suspect this will turn out to be another award-winner.

Recommended:Sarah Waters webpage:

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