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Hundreds Hall is the great house of the village. The Little Stranger,the new novel by Sarah Waters,opens with an Empire Day Fete.....

Written by UMA MAHADEVAN DASGUPTA |
September 12, 2009 12:05:58 am

The Little Stranger

Sarah Waters

Virago

Pages: 499

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Hundreds Hall is the great house of the village. The Little Stranger,the new novel by Sarah Waters,opens with an Empire Day Fete in the grounds shortly after the war. For the villagers,Hundreds,built in the 1730s in rural Warwickshire,has always represented something unchanging about England,the families who live in the great houses,and their own place in life. The line between the village and the Ayres family is as clearly drawn as the rope or ribbon that cordons off the doors and French windows of the house,leaving the grooms’ and gardeners’ lavatories for the use of the visiting villagers.

But the years following the war bring unprecedented changes. Hundreds,like so much that it represented,soon falls apart. Faraday,who first visited the lovely Georgian house as a child,accompanying his mother who once worked there as a maid,returns after 30 years and another war. Only Mrs Ayres,her crippled son Roderick and her daughter Caroline live here now,attended on by just one girl from the village. “Hundreds is lovely,” says Caroline. “But it’s a sort of lovely monster! It needs to be fed all the time,with money and hard work.”

The estate is crumbling — bits of the grounds are being sold off steadily,and the house itself is in a state of decay. For the family,Hundreds Hall — which they refer to by its first name,Hundreds,like a dear friend or another family member — is now a prison that keeps them wandering within the pages of a long-gone past of privilege and entitlement,with no way to emerge into the changed present.

After her set of novels set in the Victorian period,The Night Watch,Waters’ fourth novel,set in London during the Second World War,intertwined three parallel narratives about loneliness,suffering,and redemption. The Little Stranger,shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize,is set in the years soon after the war,but its subject is a different kind of damage.

Faraday,the narrator,is the son of working-class parents. Having qualified as a doctor,he now works as a general physician in the village of his childhood in the days before the National Health Service. Nearing forty,he is still a bachelor,and an unlikely friendship develops between Faraday and Caroline Ayres. Meanwhile Roderick,the new master of Hundreds,who was injured in the war,is haunted by a sinister presence in the house. Slowly the fear of this unnamed thing,this “little stranger”,spreads to all the members of the family. The ghost story takes time to build up — the book weighs in at five hundred pages — but it builds up with chilling detail,and when the terror first appears,it never lets go.

As a boy,Faraday had been so entranced by the mystique of Hundreds Hall that he had cut off an acorn-shaped piece of plaster from one of the walls. Engaged to the daughter of the house,he is still obsessed with the beauty and grandeur that Hundreds once stood for but all he can do now is witness the final collapse of the house. Drawing on the tradition of stories about the supernatural,complete with the rather dull voice of the bachelor doctor narrator,Waters intertwines the ghost story (and revitalises the forgotten genre) with a richly detailed tale of class and prejudice in post-war rural life in Britain.

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First published on: 12-09-2009 at 12:05:58 am

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