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Friday, 23 July 2010

Classic Openings: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger is the latest offering from Sarah Waters, the reigning queen of period fiction as far as I'm concerned. Although I've noticed that fans of Waters either love or loathe it I found it an entrancing read. As it was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize I think the critics are in agreement!

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

I first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old. It was the summer after the war, and the Ayreses still had most of their money then, were still big people in the district. The event was in Empire Day fete: I stood with a line of other village children making a Boy Scout salute while Mrs Ayres and the Colonel went past us, handing out commemorative medals; afterwards we sat to tea with our parents at long tables on what I suppose was the south lawn. Mrs Ayres would have been twenty-four or -five, her husband a few years older; their little girl, Susan, would have been about six. They must have made a very handsome family, but my memory of them is vague. I recall most vividly the house itself, which struck me as an absolute mansion. I remember its lovely ageing details: the worn red brick, the cockled window glass, the weathered sandstone edgings. They made it look blurred and slightly uncertain - like an ice, I thought, just beginning to melt in the sun.

1. First point, Waters introduces the main character here - though it may not look like it. Hundreds Hall is so central to the novel I don't hesitate in calling it a primary character. It is described, analysed and utilised more than any person really. And, to that end, Waters must focus on it in her first paragraph. By describing it through the eyes of a child she can portray it simplistically - but also with the value of hindsight. It's always important for an author to get retrospective viewpoints at just the right level between childish inference and adult interpretation but Waters has always been an expert at that.

2. Offering snippets of background. In this opening paragraph Waters overtly gives backstory to the reader about the Ayreses but it reads so smoothly that the reader doesn't notice. The voice is so easy to slip into that exposition doesn't feel so taxing. This is partly down to Waters' style but it's also due to good characterisation - Dr Faraday's narrative voice is there from the start.

3. Waters brings out the details. As Dr Faraday remembers the details of the house so he impresses them on the reader. It's an effective way of fixing something on the audience - they'll remember through a memory. At this stage, also, the reader is lapping up details. By picking up certain details on the very first page Waters can be confident they may be remembered. And, in this novel, everything seems to have an emotion attached.

Buy it here.

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