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Thursday, February 4, 2010

What I'm Reading: The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters was listed by Stephen King as the best book he read in 2009. Already on my list before that, it moved to the top of the stack.

The plot is very simple, we are in post WWII England in a crumbling estate. Our narrator, is the local doctor whose mother also happened to be a maid at said estate, back in its glory days. He becomes obsessed with the home and its inhabitants after treating their only servant. The story follows the changing social structure of England and the deterioration of the house and the family inside of it.

We have the mother, son and daughter.  Each slowly goes mad, and each meets a bad end.  Are they being stalked by the ghost of a dead family member or is the doctor orchestrating their demise?  He is a truly creepy and unreliable narrator.

Bad things pile ontop of each other, over and over again, in this novel.  Things start badly and slowly, I would even say painfully, get worse with each turn of the page. Do not expect things to turn around for the better here.  In fact, just as things seem to be looking up, they get tragically worse. It is oppressive for the characters and the reader.

Who or what is responsible for the destruction of the estate and the family is never revealed. Read and decide for yourself.

The Little Stranger has been described as old-fashioned horror, but I would classify it more as historical, psychological suspense.  Why?  Well, the feeling of dread is their from the first lines how can it not be? We begin with the past: a beautiful home and family, the young child dies, war comes, the family loses their money, etc...

It cannot be true horror because we never know for sure if what is stalking the family is supernatural or not. I am leaning toward it being the doctor who caused everything.  The ending resolves the main plot issues, but the fear of it all happening again has not been erased because we never know who or what was responsible. This novel truly is a classic example of psychological suspense in a historic setting.

The best description I can give of this book is that it stays with you. You will think about it long after the last page is turned.

3 Words That Best Describe This Book: historical, unhurried, oppressive

Readalikes: The Unseen Alexandra Sokoloff has faster pacing and a similar haunted house plot, but it is more modern and there is a definite supernatural presence here. I wrote about reading The Unseen here. Anything by Sarah Langan will also work.

The Little Stranger looks back on two other classics which ride this thin line between horror and psychological suspense, Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. If you haven't read either of these and liked The Little Stranger, pick up these backlist titles.

I read Drood by Dan Simmons last year and it shares a lot of similarities with The Little Stranger: the unreliable narrator, the question of a supernatural being vs. a human serial killer, an obsessive narrator, and a historical British setting (although this one if during Dickens' time).

I would also suggest the stories and novels of the late Shirley Jackson to anyone who enjoyed The Little Stranger, especially her classic novel, The Haunting of Hill House or the story, "The Lottery."

The modern psychological suspense of Carol Goodman or Peter Abrahams both offer the same claustrophobic settings, obsessive characters and unsettling feelings as Waters' novel.

For another disturbing (but not supernatural) book set in a similar time and place I would suggest Ian McEwan's Atonement.  This also happens to be one of my all-time favorite books.  While I was reading The Little Stranger I kept thinking of Atonement. This is a great example of the readalike which fits because they share the same feel, if not any plot points.  Also, one of my favorite things about each of these books is the unreliable narrator issue. Finally, both novels  share the same deliberate pace where the tension builds so slowly at times that you literally feel like the entire book is physically pressing down on you. From the RA standpoint, this can be a positive (for a reader like me) or a huge limiter for other readers; best to point it out ahead of time.

Nonfiction readers may be very interested in post-WWII England and country doctors.  Also, for a nonfiction look at a "cursed," wealthy, British family, try The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale, which I read here.

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