Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Little Stranger: Good, gothic read for dark November nights

What better way to pass a chill, dark Halloween evening than by listening to a gothic ghost story?

That's exactly what I did this past Sunday. Though the experience might have been improved had I not been doing that listening - to Sarah Waters' "The Little Stranger" (Riverhead Books, 2009, 466 pp., $26.95) on audiobook - while stuck in traffic on Route 322 on my way home from a visit to Happy Valley. (But thank God for audiobooks in times like those).

I came upon this Man Booker Prize finalist will searching for a book club somewhere in the Pottstown vicinity. I haven't been able to make the daytime club meetings at the Pottstown Public Library, and found that Wellington Square Bookshop in Exton, which looks delightful -though I've yet to set foot in it - has a book club on Thursday nights (also Thursday days). "The Little Stranger" was their selection for October.

Although I missed the October book club meeting at Wellington Square (because of WORK, I might add), I wanted to investigate the book choice to see if I liked it.

The tale was probably enhanced by the fact that the book on tape is read by a British voice actor (Simon Vance) who can do male and female voices very well, as well as dialects. This story is set in the countryside of post WWII Warkwickshire, England. The New York Times Book Review aptly describes the 1947 setting as a "wonderfully evoked atmosphere of postwar anxiety."

The story begins as the narrator, Dr. Faraday, an unmarried, middle-aged physician, is called to an estate called Hundreds Hall to look in on a servant who's taken ill.

Faraday has long been an admirer of "Hundreds," having visited as a child when the home was in a grander state while his mother was working there as a nursery maid at the grand palatial mansion. Now, the estate has fallen into disrepair, though it's still being cared for by the Ayres family - an upper crust family fallen on hard times.

Mrs. Ayres, her 24-year-old son, Roderick, and her 27-year-old "spinster" daughter Caroline reside in the massive structure along with one of two servants and a companionable old hound, Gyp.

Rod, an RAF pilot who was badly injured in the war and has some trouble getting around, is responsible for keeping the house and a dairy farm on its grounds going.

Dr. Faraday strikes up a friendship with the amiable Caroline and starts to "call" at the hall regularly to visit with her and under the premise of performing an experimental therapy on Rod's injured leg. Faraday by chance is present at a party where things start to go wrong for the family. The dog Caroline so loves gets in a tangle with a young girl who's the daughter of a neighbor. I won't ruin any spooky details for you, but the implication is that some dark force was at work, precipitating an incident that is tragic.

Soon, Rod starts to act strangely. He confides in Faraday about seeing the work of some "dark thing," some poltergeist of sorts. Faraday, ever the pragmatist and man of science, tells him in not so nice terms that it's all in his mind. Rod doesn't take this so well. He abruptly calls off Dr. Faraday's therapy (some sort of electro-stim physical therapy), stops sleeping and starts drinking ... enough to mess anyone up pretty good.

Strange things continue to happen around the mostly vacant or closed-up Hundreds. Furniture moving itself about the rooms, burn marks and graffiti of sorts appearing on the walls, and voices, flashes appearing out of the corners of the eye.

It's not a horror novel. The pace is slower and the malevolences are more implied than outright. Nothing can be proved. It's more of a psychological thriller, and had I read it in book form, I would guess it's a page turner. Since I instead had 11 CDs to listen to, I can say I went through them pretty quickly.

Following Rod's example, Mrs. Ayres and Caroline each eventually have their own run-ins with the "dark thing," the "little stranger."

Meanwhile, a bumbling romance of sorts between Caroline and Faraday completes the gothic part of the equation.

I do like Faraday, for all his faults, but Caroline is my favorite character in the novel, and not just because she bears the strong, old-fashioned name of my first-born niece. Caroline's an independent woman who speaks her mind, doesn't really care how she looks, and doesn't ask the servants to do anything she won't do herself. And there's the fact that at 27, she's looked on by her family with pity, and by the townsfolk with ridicule, because she's not married. I'm sure I felt a bond...

But there's also an intriguing story behind our narrator. At first he seems so trustworthy - the voice of reason, the good doctor. He's the one "outsider" the Ayres family turns to for help. As the story carried on, however, I began to distrust him and increasingly to side with the supernatural explanation of events, rather than the rational. Plus, he turns out to be kind of cad.

Overall, a good read and not too scary. A little out of my usual pleasure-reading picks, but in a good way.

If you'd like to hear more about the book, click here to check out a video of author Sarah Waters talking about her fifth novel, The Little Stranger, at the Harvard Book Club.

For more information about the Wellington Square Bookshop Book Club, click here. The November selection is "A Gate at the Stairs" by Lorrie Morgan. They say the book is a "challenging, touching staff favorite." The meeting is Thursday, Nov. 18, at either 2 p.m. (for folks who want a daytime club) or 7 p.m. (for a nighttime club). Pre-registration is encouraged.

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