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Since I haven’t been doing much aside from working and reading (something I hope to remedy this weekend), I thought that, at the very least, I should be writing about what I’ve been reading over the past couple months. So I’ll work my way back from the most recent book I’ve completed: The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters, which is the author’s attempt at writing a gothic, psychological horror/thriller in the style of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw or Poe’s story “Fall of the House of Usher.” (One of the characters in The Little Stranger even named Roderick—a nod to both Poe’s story and to James, I assume, who wrote a novel called Roderick Hudson.) For a more recent (and much, much better) example of the genre, see Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

The Little Stranger takes place in rural, post-World War II England: A country doctor of working-class origins becomes enmeshed in the lives of a local family who live in a beautiful yet deteriorating old house on a big estate. Landed gentry vs. quietly seething class resentment, as only the English can do. Ding ding ding! OK, actually, that was the most interesting thing about the book.

[ profile] fewthistle  and I had a brief exchange about the book recently, where I declared that it was slow going at first, but seemed to be picking up; this was when I was about 100 pages in. It did pick up. Then it slowed right down again, and pretty much crept toward an ending of sorts. It is the type of book that you want to throw across the room after completion—it’s that frustrating—but all you can manage is a half-hearted toss onto a rumpled duvet cover. It is the type of book that you read frantically because you are desperate for something to happen; you feel as trapped as the characters do in their cavernous, cursed house because you think, God, the whole book can’t be all like this: a page turner, but not in a good way. My issues:
  1. The narrator, the doctor, is really, really boring and stodgy. Was that the point, maybe? Yes, he has the Seething Class Resentment thing going on, but without much background detail on his life—most of it dry and commonplace—I found it hard to care about him. Waters has shown she can write from the third person/omniscient pov, as in The Night Watch, and I think the book would have worked better had we experienced individual povs rather than have everything filtered and distilled into generalized grayness by a boring middle-aged prig.
  2. No lesbians. Well, I could say that about everything, couldn’t I? (Well, you could make a case for one of the characters being a repressed lesbian type.) There are no lesbians on TV, there are no lesbians in the movies (unless they’re trapped in bad movies available on netflix or via illegal download), there are no lesbians in baseball (except for the Glimmer Twins, Derek and A-Rod!), there are no lesbians in my iced coffee. I get it, universe. And maybe Waters wanted to write a book without queers in it. I can understand that: It’s a writer’s challenge, to go outside the framework that you usually traverse. Maybe it’s why James Baldwin wrote Giovanni’s Room from the pov of a white guy. So this is actually a positive negative. I admire her for giving it a shot. Now next book, Sarah, please to give us lesbians again.
  3. There was nothing in the book that really surprised or horrified me, or even creeped me out. Is this a sign I should be going to see The Human Centipede? Or, worse yet, Sex and the City 2? Sex and the Centipede? (“omg, Carrie, I’m dating a doctor! He’s German, and guess what? He wants to meet all of you!”) The aristocratic members of the Ayres family characters make vaguely threatening noises to the doctor-narrator: You know nothing about us! It’s true, he doesn’t, and as a result neither do we. I kept waiting to discover something really horrible about the house or its occupants, or just something that would add another layer to the quasi-spooky shenanigans.

Believe it or not, it’s hard for me to admit I don’t like the book. I have really loved and enjoyed all of Waters’s previous novels; in fact, I think her second book, Affinity, is a lot spookier than this one. So she still has a pretty good track record with me.

Next on the Book Report: Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, and yet another travel book!


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May 2013

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