The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters
This book, which I do not think I would have ever read on my own, was loaned to me by a coworker who was curious to know what I thought about it. For the author, this book (a gothic horror novel of sorts) marks a departure for the authoress from her usual style of books, which I would not read at all on moral grounds because of their content. This book is thankfully not immoral, but neither is it the sort of book that is likely to calm its readers, being filled with a distinctly uneasy mood that deals with a house that may be said to be the cousin of Northanger Abbey or Kellynch Hall in the way that it tends to wreck havoc on the nerves of its occupants, a gentry family that 150 years before would have been minor characters in a Jane Austen novel but in the hands of Ms. Waters have a decidedly darker fate in the anti-gentry times of post-WWII socialist England.
This book starts out very slowly, with a small town English bachelor doctor from lowbrow origins with a difficult relationship with his deceased parents who comes to know and becomes embedded within the lives of a gentry family for whom his mother once worked as a girl who have fallen on decidedly hard times. From the beginning of the book there is a vague atmosphere of fear and dread, of the burden of history, of a troubled family history full of secrets and resentment, as well as the desperate attempts to keep up with appearances in the face of historical and personal doom. The book spends a lot of time showing the psychology of its small suite of main characters and memorable (and sometimes malicious) supporting characters, which must include the malevolent house as well as the narrow-minded scientist Faraday, the frightened young servant Betty, the somewhat coquettish and manipulative Caroline, as well as the somewhat daffy Mrs. Ayers and the fragile and broken Roderick, and many other more minor characters who play an important role in the progress of this novel.
The structure of this novel is somewhat intriguing; it consists of 15 chapters (the last of which is short) which span slightly over 500 pages of prose that build the action through a focus on an unreliable narrator who gradually becomes more and more enmeshed in the fate of the Ayers family and its children, as an accidental doctor to a servant and gradually a confidant and even suitor of the spinster Caroline, before everything goes horribly wrong. Almost every 100 pages in this novel there is a dramatic incident that pushes the novel more and more tragic, as the characters find no escape from their problems and as the doctor exerts a persistent pressure on the characters to stay in the house that is destroying their lives, serving as a major blocking character from anyone else escaping the house before irreparable harm is done. The undertone of malice and envy in this novel is palpable, especially of a class envy, in which only the lower class servants and Dr. Faraday are able to escape the house and its horrors, even as the house falls deeper and deeper into its lonely decrepitude, just like the gentry whose lengthy and largely beneficial existence was imperiled by socialist politics and the grinding effect of two world wars and failures to marry and keep families going.
Given the pervasive feeling of gloom in this novel, and given the fact that this novel has a main character who resembles me in some rather key ways, I wonder what reason it was that my coworker thought that it would be good for me to read this book? Is it because of those resemblances, because I have an interest in history, politics, and novels about the gentry (like the books of Jane Austen)? In many ways, this book is like Middlemarch, in that it features a main character who is not too unlike me, but a much darker sort of version, and I am left to wonder what recognizing the resemblance says about me. Perhaps I think too much about these things, but this is the sort of novel that encourages reflection of a particularly melancholy kind, which seems to be a large part of its point as a genre novel executed excellently in such a way that it undercuts the enjoyment we get from seeing those who are thought to be high and mighty brought to destruction, especially since they do not seem to earn their sad fate at all. Should people suffer merely because they are descended from wealthy ancestors? That hardly seems just, even to one born in poverty and obscurity and shame.