Across the Page: April 2009

This month’s Across the Page features two new releases — Sarah Waters’s haunting The Little Stranger and Linda Morganstein’s Hollywood drama My Life With Stella Kane — and a look back at Carol Anshaw’s ingenious novel Aquamarine.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (Riverhead Books)

The Little Stranger, the latest novel by Sarah Waters, opens with the narrator, Dr. Faraday, making a house call at the grand estate Hundreds Hall. Set in postwar Britain, the last and only other time he visited the home was years ago when the Ayers family held an Empire Day Fête for the village children.

The circumstances of that first visit could not be more different from the present. Back then, Dr. Faraday was a ten-year old boy accompanied by his mother, a former servant at the house, and Hundreds Hall was a magnificent and beautifully maintained estate.

The visit had made a lasting impression on him and when he returns, nearly three decades later, he is shocked to see how the house has fallen apart since the family lost their money.

Despite current conditions, Dr. Faraday is still intrigued and charmed by Hundreds and its inhabitants. Mrs. Ayers is an older woman who lost both her husband, the Colonel, and their first daughter, and now lives at the house with her two adult children: her daughter, Caroline, an eccentric and “plain looking” young woman on the path toward spinsterhood; and her son Roderick, who is as uncomfortable as he is ill-equipped to be the new master of the house.

Though Dr. Faraday is there to care for their maid — a young woman who finally admits that she is not sick, but just terrified of the deteriorating mansion — he offers to treat Roderick’s war injury for free. Roderick’s treatments make Dr. Faraday a regular visitor at the house and the more time he spends with the Ayers, the more he becomes entangled in the strange happenings at Hundreds Hall — events that are not easily dismissed or explained by his over rationalizations.

As with Waters’ previous novels, The Little Stranger weaves a plot that continues to surprise. From the beginning, the story takes on new twists and the reader can’t help but turn a suspicious eye on all of the characters — including the house itself.

Though The Little Stranger is rich in story, character and setting, it is also psychologically complex and compelling. The novel follows several narrative threads: the haunting of Hundreds Hall; the collapse of the Ayres family’s wealth and prestige; Roderick’s fragile body and mind; Dr. Faraday’s pervasive loneliness and slow integration into the family; and the awkward and suspenseful courtship between Dr. Faraday and Caroline.

Ultimately The Little Stranger is as much a ghost story as it is a story about perception. Dr. Faraday is the perfect lens and point of view to reveal this world — a world that Waters, with all of her characteristic attention to detail, brings alive on the page. Dr. Faraday’s desire to save the family and Hundreds Hall becomes an obsession — one that Caroline, the reader, and even he himself is forced to question.

The Little Stranger is a brilliant ghost story and an extremely engaging read.

And for those of you who may not be interested in the book because it does not feature a lesbian character or storyline, read it anyway. Waters leaves plenty open for interpretation.

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