Guardian book club: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The careful ambiguity of this gothic mystery adds up to a collection of frustratingly loose ends. Should I let it put me off this much-loved writer?

For a well-received, Booker short-listed novel, The Little Stranger seems curiously unpopular with those who might be expected to like it most. Whenever I have told a Sarah Waters fan that I've been reading the book, they've all peered at me anxiously and asked if it was the first of her novels that I'd read. When I've said yes, they've looked more worried still and begged me not to take it as representative, not to be "put off". The consensus seems to be that it isn't half as much fun as the author's earlier forays into lesbian historical fiction, half as impressive as The Night Watch, or even approaching them in passion, energy and gusto. The problem, as my better half put it, is that The Little Stranger is just "too measured and controlled".

Superficially, this complaint seems odd for what is essentially a gothic haunted house mystery. Daphne du Maurier was the first comparable writer who sprang to mind as I read Waters' story of an old family on its last legs, rattling around in an old mansion (the Hundreds Hall) in which they go steadily more potty. In fact, there are many events that the rarely restrained Du Maurier might consider over the top. As well as dwindling fortunes, madness and tragedy, the Ayres family seem beset by all manner of things that go bump in the night. Furniture appears to move of its own volition and very much against the wishes of the householders. An apparent malicious presence taunts a dog into biting a little girl's face during a fantastically awkward social occasion. Spooky writing manifests beneath the paintwork. Servants start to worry that there's something "bad" hanging around the house. The house itself takes on a macabre life of its own (in one memorable passage, the narrator says the eldest Ayres daughter, Caroline, "went into the house as if stepping into a rip in the night"). People die in extravagantly suspicious circumstances. It's hardly Raymond Carver.

In spite of all that, this is a book in which the author is clearly nervous about releasing the throttle. The complaints of Waters' fans centred around the narrator, a dry, restrained country quack called Dr Faraday. A working class lad (his mother used to be a servant at Hundreds Hall) who is steadily making good thanks to the application of rational science, Faraday isn't at all keen to give way to passion, or anything else not dreamt of in his philosophy. He is the careful, stolid presence who often appears in ghost stories to try to pour cold water on the idea of supernatural presences – only to stoke the flames higher in readers' minds. He is dull.

In an intriguing review in The Observer, Tracy Chevalier gave a good idea of why Faraday might be so problematic - aside from and above being a bit of a bore:

"There is an inherent problem with ghost stories: they always boil down to a futile argument between sceptic and believer. Poor Dr Faraday has the thankless task of trying to convince the Ayres that every odd sight and sound and incident has a rational explanation. I eventually grew tired of vacillating between wondering if there was a real ghost and expecting the housemaid to be behind it all; I longed for a credible third way."

I'm with Chevalier on the wearying nature of this debate but, funnily enough, I thought Waters had found something of a third way. She leaves open the tantalising possibility that rational Dr Faraday might actually be a bit of a psycho, or even a malign psychic presence. There are hints that this singularly unreliable narrator might be the root and cause of much of the trouble. He seems prone to blackouts, is desperate to get his hands on the house, has a motive rooted in class envy, is alibi-free at important times, and there are a number of references to his potential involvement in the closing pages. It's also possible to believe that the titular Little Stranger is indeed a malign, ghostly presence in the house. Or that the various members of the Ayres household have, more straightforwardly, gone round the bend. Or that the book forms a grand metaphor for the post-war destruction of the gentry by the rising working class, embodied by Faraday and his ilk.

There's something to be said for such ambivalence, but sadly most of that relates to frustration. Unlike, say, The Turn Of The Screw, where the uncertainty is unsettling, here it just feels as if we are being led along to little purpose. It doesn't seem like a wealth of choice so much as a dearth of real possibility. Alone or in combination, the various suggestions that Waters provides fail to convince.

The class notes are heavily struck, too. Too many references to the Labour government "eating … alive" the old gentry clang from the pages, just in case we are in danger of missing Waters' thesis. Dr Faraday, meanwhile, is a rubbish male. When someone annoys him, for instance, we are told: "I … kept my eyes on his as I ate – wanting to stare him out, one man to another." What kind of man? The way his supposedly masculine attributes are conveyed are equivalent in subtlety to female comedians who always sit splay-legged and pretend to scratch their nuts when imitating men. Oh, and he's also an unbelievably poor doctor, spilling patient confidences at every opportunity.

I guess the Waters fans I spoke to were right to be anxious. There is plenty of lovely writing here, and the plot wasn't so dissatisfying that it put me off entirely. But it made me wary. Should I be? Or is it her worst work? Or, indeed, am I missing something? Over to you.

Comments will be most appreciated, as they'll help inform John Mullan's final book club column this month.


Sam Jordison

The GuardianTramp

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