June 29th, 2009

breaking bad

The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters is a ghost story of a dry and indirect kind. I haven't read The Turn of the Screw, but I think it might be along the same lines - is there a ghost? Is there rather a self-replicating mental illness which reflects the social tensions within the house? Or a genetic taint on a family? Or is there a psychic darkness emanating from one disturbed individual, like a nightmare made real? And of course on another level the whole story is a metaphor for the changing power balance between the old 'gentry' and wider post-war society which is moving on ahead of them into the future.

I listened to this on audio, unabridged. The whole thing is about 15-16 hours long. For the first three hours - so a considerable chunk of the book - the emotional tone is very restrained, and frankly almost nothing happens. I had two or three books on the go, and I was dipping into this in breaks from the others, take it or leave it. Then at 3 hours it suddenly ramped up. I can remember, I was walking down Canley Ford, when the whole story suddenly broke open in a shocking event, and I could hardly bear the rising tension. The writing was very controlled and perfectly paced.

A voice reading a story in your ear is very intimate, particularly lying in bed in the dark, and towards the end of the novel, as things become more spooky, I had to sit up and turn the light on because it was insinuating and scary.

I can compare this to her previous 1940s-set book The Night Watch - a step change in improvement in writing quality from her earliest novels, and you feel you are in the hands of a professional who is completely in control of her craft. Having said that people might find it a slow burner, and some might be frustrated that it isn't explicitly one thing or another. Personally I'd like to see it Booker-shortlisted.

Oh, yes, and one more thing. If they put this on telly I'd like to see David Mitchell as the p.o.v. doctor character. I think comedians play horror quite well. Failing that, perhaps Mark Gatiss or one of that clutch.