Saturday, 27 February 2010

The little stranger, by Sarah Waters

It has been a veritable Sarah Waters feast for Minerva this week, all because, coincidentally, The Canberra Times-ANU scheduled a literary event featuring Sarah Waters in conversation with Marion Halligan the day after we had scheduled Waters' The little stranger for discussion. Six of us turned up for the discussion, and four the next day for the conversation.

First, though, our discussion. It was a good one! All had read it - or made a good enough fist of it to join in the discussion. We all enjoyed it, though not without various reservations along the way. The things we liked were:
  • the social history: Waters has done a wonderful job of creating a "feel" for the time, and particularly of the class tensions that were rising in that post-war period
  • the "fabulous" descriptions, particularly of Hundreds Hall and its cold, damp feel
  • the characters: they were all convincing, even the minor ones
The plot was, though, frustrating for many of us. Many felt set up but were not quite sure for what. Some felt that at times Waters included information/details because she'd done the research and didn't want to leave it out. We puzzled quite a bit about the narrator, Dr Faraday. At times he felt unreliable, but we decided that in fact he was reliable. Some sympathised with him, while others felt he was manipulative. Did he love Caroline or the house? And we were not all convinced about who the little stranger was: the baby "Susan", or a poltergiest released by the Ayerses' inability to adapt to changing times, or perhaps, the doctor (though most of felt that he could not have consciously engineered the events that occurred)?

... and so it was with some enthusiasm that we went to the Sarah Waters' event the next day. We had our question ready! But, Sarah, it was clear, did not want to engage in discussions about the ending, fearing spoilers for those who had not yet read it. All she said formally was that she left it deliberately open but that she tried to lead the reader to a certain conclusion. She’s been fascinated by the discussions that have ensued about the ending. Don’t we know it! I'd love to know how many of those discussions have been off the mark (from her perspective anyhow).

However, she did say some things that might help our deliberations. Her original plan was for Dr Faraday to be a straightforward, transparent narrator, who was firmly in the middle class and a friend of the family, and who would chronicle their decline. This changed as she started writing: she decided to make him more uncomfortable class-wise with some latent class resentments. And, she talked about poltergeists and how they represent the release of unresolved tensions, conflicts and frustrations. Well, there were a lot of those at Hundreds Hall and so I think that if we accept poltergeists, then we might decide that more than one “person” is implicated in what happened at Hundreds Hall. There is, after all, the following statement in the book made to Dr Faraday by Dr Seeley:

The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners, after all. Imagine something loosening itself from one of those corners. Let’s call it a – a germ. And let’s say conditions prove right for that germ to develop – to grow … 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…
This is just the tip of the iceberg of a lively reading group discussion and an engaging literary event (as Waters and Halligan were really rather delightful). It would be great if others who attended the meeting and/or talk, or who didn't attend these but have read the book, shared their ideas here. Go for it ...