Welcome to the book blog of writer and creative writing tutor, Diane Paul.

Thanks to the publishers and kind PR people who send me books and releases about their clients' books for review. Press releases and review copies of fiction and non-fiction are always welcome. (No sci-fi, fantasy or erotica please.)

Due to the barrage of requests from self-published authors for reviews, I'm unable to deal with them all, although I'm sometimes drawn to non-fiction for the subject matter. And because I love print books, the smell, the touch of the paper and the sight of the words, I don't have an electronic reader or review e-books.

E-mail to: bookblogforbookworms@keywordeditorial.com for the postal address.

My writing website: http://www.keywordeditorial.com/

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Sarah Waters and The Little Stranger

Hilary Mantel, writing in The Guardian, called it 'A perverse hymn to decay...' 

I didn't find Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger (Virago) frightening, unnerving or chilly as other critics did. In fact, for most of the time I was waiting for something sensational to happen. A dead child's name scratched on the walls, odd knockings, bangings and bell ringings didn't induce me to sleep with the light on (although a fox screaming outside my window as a I read, as experienced by Suzi Feay of the Literary Review, certainly would have made me reach for the Rescue Remedy).

My mother and aunt were ardent followers of things that went bump in the night and were constantly tripping off to eccentric old ladies in turbans to find out what the future had in store for them. When my mother died, she left behind a diary full of automatic writing that nobody could decipher. The Sister and I were used to pushing upturned glasses round a circle of letters with Yes and No at the top and bottom and asking daft questions that always ended up in riots of laughter, so we were no strangers to the 'supernatural'. This came to an abrupt halt one day in our mother's absence, when we 'borrowed' the forbidden equipment from the sideboard. By the time she arrived home The Sister and I were clutching one another in terror, scared stiff of the terrifying atmosphere we'd created in the room and a ghastly smell like bad cheese that permeated it. I said it was her feet; she swore it was mine and we became hysterical.

Author Sarah Waters
If I'd wanted to be scared it wasn't happening for a long time in The Little Stranger but I did enjoy reading the book and found it hard to put down, finishing it in two sittings despite its length. And I must admit that were I any of the characters in the novel, I would have been terrified out of my wits. The narrator, Dr Faraday gives us the background to the focus of the story -  Hundreds Hall, a Georgian mansion in Warwickshire - which provides the perfect setting for a creepy Gothic novel. Faraday has visited the pile, as a boy. Now, as an adult in the 1940s, he strikes up a friendship with the remaining Ayres family, who are all basically damned, living eccentrically in decaying splendour in a forgotten era.

Faraday, now a qualified doctor spends a lot of time with the widowed mother, Mrs Ayres and her two grownup children, Roderick and Caroline. But his logical medical mind attributes the strange happenings there to psychological issues, so that if he and his colleagues had had their way the entire clan would have been locked up in mental homes. Readers are given the option of deciding whether it is paranormal activity and an entity is at work in the house to destroy the family or whether it's possible for a frustrated human being to subconsciously convey their angst into the house to attain the freedom they desperately desire by terrifying them all into insanity or worse. This is what is so fascinating about the author's extraordinary tale.

The drama and conflict at the climax is enthralling and skilfully handled and her research impeccable. She weaves her knowledge into the plot, mainly through dialogue so that it's given naturally and not in large chunks of indigestible exposition or as an academic lesson in how knowledgeable she is, like some writers do (though I have to say that Faraday certainly has his fair share of introspection).

The doctor is an unexciting man and some of his tale is repetitive and long-winded but Sarah Waters controls the pace this way and builds up her story slowly until events explode. She also manages to get inside the male mind and evoke the various moods and reactions of Dr Faraday when his expectations are damned in circumstances beyond his control. In parts, the style of his narrative reminds me of Daphne du Maurier. And she exposes the weaknesses of the British upper classes in their cloistered environment, a dying ember of a bygone era declining into a post-war world in which they are unable to adapt. Enlightening but sad.

The Little Stranger was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize in 2009 and the South Bank Show Literature Award. Film rights are under option. A firm devotee of this author, I'm off to read The Night Watch.

You can learn more about Sarah Waters's work on http://www.sarahwaters.com/

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