Thrillers aren’t always thrilling

Just finished reading Sarah Waters’ latest, The Little Stranger.
It’s an odd read.
I get what she’s attempting, I really do. But does it work?

In one sense, yes. The setting is a dilapidated country house; the point of view a local lad made good, a doctor, as dull as dishwater, just a little obsessed with the house and its family. Strange things start happening there, sad and violent things, and you know there’ll be tears before bedtime (actually, there won’t be, because most of the characters are too stiff-upper-lip). All nicely realised.

Waters is doing what she does best, recreating a genre, or perhaps era, of fiction: absorbing it, reliving it, and somehow conveying its essence in both plot and language (if not character). It was pitch-perfect in The Night Watch and Fingersmith. It may be close in this – post-war ghost stories are not my thing.

But it’s pretty boring.

The second strange event had me absolutely spooked, though that’s not hard since I get too scared to watch the most run-of-the-mill police show on TV. Apart from that it was difficult to engage as a reader, and even more difficult to care about any of the characters.

The central issue is obvious, and one with which many authors have grappled: the unsympathetic narrator.

It’s not that Doctor Faraday is completely unsympathetic. We appreciate the class anxieties, the son of the former maid now able to enter the big house as a friend. But, as one reviewer noted, “Waters gives herself a sort of handicap with the dull doctor’s narration. This indirectness, which in cruder hands might have led to a yawning insurrection in the reader, becomes essential to the novel’s unsettling power”.

I missed the unsettling power and felt saddled with the dull doctor, and having figured out the supernatural element about halfway through, plodded on laboriously and loyally to the end.

It also seemed to me that Waters’ usual control of her historical detail seems to have gotten away from her: the meticulous descriptions that worked so well in The Night Watch became even more words to wade through here, and seemed often at odds with the doctor’s character.

Tricky stuff to pull off, and points for trying, but it doesn’t really work. Millions disagree, I’m sure, and it was short-listed for the Booker alongside Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, the eventual winner; a triumph of the unsympathetic narrator who wins us over completely and utterly.

Note to self: The more historical fiction you read, the less interested you are in historical detail. And remember this warning, since you are currently entangled with a dangerously borderline unsympathetic narrator.

What do you think?

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