Sunday, September 22, 2013

England: Still Classy After All These Years

I have two posts worth of things to say about The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters.  One is about the ghost story and how it's constructed, and is basically a review of the book.  The other is all about the British class system, and involves my thoughts on the book Assassin, as well.  But I've been kind of overwhelmed by all the things I want to say and not quite able to tie them all together.

But you can't put things off forever; perfection is the enemy of completion.  So I'm going with a list format, with apologies for my intellectual laziness.

1. The Little Stranger is an excellent book.  It's a ghost story, technically, but that is almost (not quite) a spoiler, because there is nothing strange going on for almost half the book.  It's about an English country doctor in the years after World War II who enters into an unlikely friendship with the impoverished but genteel family at the local estate. 

I am so against slice-of-life books and intense character studies, but the first half of the book was little more than that, and I found it intensely compelling.  The doctor is--I wouldn't call him an unreliable narrator, but he's very biased, and the more he tries to explain things fairly and with a doctor's clinical distance, the more you become aware of the lenses through which he views things.  This was marvelously executed and kept me reading.

2) Well, listening.  I had the audiobook of this from before I canceled my Audible subscription, and that's why I picked it up.  The performance is amazing.  It's told in the first person from the doctor's point of view, and the narrator, Simon Vance, did an incredible job in capturing the doctor's layers.   The variation in his accents is great, and he does an excellent job with the female characters, which is often very hard. 

What he really captured is how the doctor believes thoroughly that he's being objective, rational, and scientific at every stage, but how quickly and easily swayed he is by his feelings.  He doesn't know it, would never acknowledge it, but the clinical clarity with which he describes how his feelings change over the course of a conversation, or how someone's comments make him angry, or how he does something impulsively, is so complex but so clear. 

3) I've never read Sarah Waters before.  I hear amazing things left, right, and center, and now I believe them and will have to add books like Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet to my reading list. 

4) Now here's where I was really going with all this: class.  I know that this is a thing in English history and society, and I remember a line in Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow about how if they'd had an Englishman with them they might have recognized the complexities of the caste system before it was too late.  And then you have YA books like Assassin (whose author is listed as Lady Grace Cavendish, who is the diarist-narrator, so weirdness there) where ladies in waiting don't understand why they can't be friends with laundresses and jesters, as though she was completely unable to understand the social structure she lives in.  It makes her seem stupid.

But then you have this book, which is so infused with class that it makes up the large part of the tension, especially in the first half.  The Ayers family is aristocracy, with an enormous house, Hundreds Hall.  Dr. Faraday's mother used to be a nursery maid at Hundreds, years ago, and he's very aware that, as a doctor, he's little more than a skilled tradesman in the family's eyes.  But they (an elderly mother and her two adult children) have no money and few friends, and he has a fascination with their house, so an odd friendship develops.

Everyone's awareness of his not quite being of their class glares from every page though it's almost never mentioned.  The house's very slow collapse, the money troubles, and the way things "used to be" all combine into the strange miasma of the place.  Someone I know said that, reading it, you picture everyone at Downton Abbey in that same time period, with no money to keep the house up.  Mrs. Ayers would be just the same age as Mary Crawley, and you can picture her going through photographs, sewing by the fire in the parlor as the ceiling sags toward the floor in the library.

It's so sad, and so poignant, and so rich.  It's delicious.  I'm eager to hear more.  You should really get the audiobook--it's 16 hours long and so worth it.


Kris said...

Fair Warning: Other Sarah Waters books contain much more lesbian sex than this book. Having said that, you should read Fingersmith, as it's a really excellent story. Little Stranger will always be my favorite, but Fingersmith is really good. I also like The Night Watch.

valentina said...

I haven't read this one but I'm so jealous that you haven't read her other books, they're so addictive!