Friday 27 November 2009

Lurking in the corners

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters (Virago)

Many are the writers who must envy Sarah Waters. Like few others - Zadie Smith, Ian McEwan and AS Byatt spring to mind – she manages to skirt that difficult boundary between critically-respected artist and bestseller, somehow managing to please both camps. Serious students of literature find much to admire in her clever, postmodern updates on classic genres which still artfully maintain the old-fashioned devices of storytelling, plot and character apparently lost from most literary fiction; meanwhile, television adaptations of her books court both controversy for their celebration of lesbian alternative lifestyle and a huge primetime audience. Like those writers, however, there is a hesitancy to truly proclaim them as great: very good, perhaps, but who’s to say that their work will outlive them?

What makes her historical novels unusual is the way in which progress and modernity are the unspoken assumptions which lie at their heart. As a female novelist benefitting from the historical gains of feminism and gay liberation, she is apparently under little illusion that the contemporary world is the preferred one to inhabit. Just as her debut novel Tipping the Velvet unfashionably celebrated the material dynamism of Victorian England to advances in relation to social liberation, so The Night Watch made the point that the social chaos caused by the Second World War was preferable, for certain people, to the staid austerity of the 1950s (on the cusp of which it begins) and economic misery of the 1930s (on the edge of which it ends).

But at the same time, as hinted at by the backwards time structure of that last novel, she is not prepared to be entirely uncritical of the present. There is not a little mourning for the way in which as old strictures are torn, new orthodoxies grow in their place: there is a freedom and innocence to much of the gender-bending and sexual experimentation of Tipping the Velvet absent from the wartime exploits of WW2. The past was another country: they did each other differently there.

Appropriately, The Little Stranger – the bestselling novel on the Booker shortlist before the award was announced – is the first of her novels to avoid any overt lesbian storyline. It does, however, mostly take place pretty much where The Night Watch began, in 1948: although, following on from that time-jump formula, it begins as a flashback to 1919. That’s the year that the novel’s narrator, Faraday, first encounters Hundreds Hall, as the young son of one of the Ayres’ family servants. He returns as a middle-aged doctor, and unmarried bachelor, to find a house and family ravaged by the traumas of war and a reforming Labour government.

Many of Waters’ other themes are here: the sense of class resentment, the presence (real or imagined) of the supernatural, the loneliness and isolation of many of the characters. The novel is well-plotted and the plot’s resolution ambiguous, which has been covered well elsewhere. What does seem to have been overlooked critically, thus far, is the significance of the year. Rarely has politics in the traditional sense been employed in Waters’ fiction: it serves a backdrop to sections of Velvet, but the personal is usually political. This is consistent with the kinds of characters Waters usually deals with: very upper-class or very lower-class women variously excluded from the great political struggles of their age. But Faraday, as an adult male in a professional job, is undoubtedly one of the history-makers of his generation.

And 1948, according to the Guardian recently, was the luckiest year to be born. The NHS, of course, was the crowning achievement of the post-war consensus and Faraday is on the frontline of its inception. The key metaphor in the book is that just as his growing intervention in the Ayres family leads to its breakdown, so too are men like him slowly destroying the old aristocratic class. While Waters leaves the existence of an actual ghost ambiguous, certainly the reader is encouraged to interpret the Ayres’ way of life as something evanescent and ethereal.

Yet if, as Sarah Boyes argued recently in her review of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, the detective in fiction became a symbol of rationalism and order, for Waters the medical establishment is something much more sinister. Both Affinity and Fingersmith dealt with the use of medicalisation – both feature inmates of insane asylums - as authoritarian social control. Here the unreliable Faraday is easily drawn into a psychobabble explanation for the uncanny events, as his fellow doctor Seeley puts its:

The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners after all. Imagine something loosening itself from those corners. Let’s call it a – a germ. And let’s say conditions prove right for that germ to develop – to grow, like a child in the womb. What would this little stranger grow into? A sort of shadow-self perhaps: a Caliban, a Mr Hyde. A creature motivated by all the nasty impulses and hungers the conscious mind had hoped to keep hidden away: things like envy, and malice, and frustration… (p380)

Faraday apparently rejects this explanation: but he is an unreliable narrator, and the novel’s text is his account of events, so we can assume he includes it for a reason. Sixty years on, debates around healthcare rationing on the NHS rage, while critics complain of an increasingly state-regulated therapeutic public sphere. While the lives of Waters’ outcast figures have materially improved, increasing numbers are excluded (or, uniquely, have excluded themselves) from the political process: there is a growing dissatisfaction with the extent of the ‘cradle-to-grave’ welfare state.

It is unlikely that Waters would sit happily alongside the likes of Daniel Hannan in deriding the post-war gains as a ‘60-year mistake,’ but you also suspect that her Twitter feed would’ve been free of the uncritical nationalist and chauvinist championing of it which this summer’s healthcare wars provoked. At the same time you don’t sense she’s calling for a return to the aristocratic world of the Ayres’. So it is interesting that she has set this tale of unexplained disturbance and vague sense of unease at this significant point of recent history. The final lines – how rarely do contemporary novelists finish novels well – emphasise this ambivalent unease:

Every so often I’ll sense a presence, or catch a movement at the corner of my eye, and my heart will give a jolt of fear and expectation: I’ll imagine that the secret is about to be revealed to me at last; that I will see what Caroline saw, and recognise it, as she did.

If Hundreds Hall is haunted, however, its ghost doesn’t show itself to me. For I’ll turn, and am disappointed – realising that what I am looking at is only a cracked window-pane, and that the face gazing distortedly from it, baffled and longing, is my own. (p499)

Of course, by couching any criticism of the present in a supernatural and historical setting, Waters is to a certain extent evading the argument. Certainly a tendency to not properly follow these things through can explain away the only serious lurking criticism of Waters: that sense of her as something slightly less than a great writer. A skilled constructor of pastiches, perhaps, a more sophisticated Jesper Fforde. She is clearly commenting on some aspect of contemporary world which does not sit easily: but, as with the ghost, the reader is left uncertain as to what that is. The Little Stranger – thematically as well as literally - is a work of inference and shadows, of unexplained problems which lurk in the corners without ever moving into the light. But even if she is not prepared to properly illuminate, Waters’s maturing talent at least flickers enough to warrant serious reflection.


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