Author: Sarah Waters
Published:Virago, 2010, pp. 501
Genre: Historical gothic fiction
Blurb: In a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to a patient at lonely Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the Georgian house, once grand and handsome, is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, its owners — mother, son and daughter — struggling to keep pace with a changing society. But are the Ayreses haunted by something more sinister than a dying way of life? Little does Dr Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become entwined with his.
Where, when and why: I really enjoy Sarah Water’s writing, so I snapped this book up when I saw it on the shelves of a local charity shop a few months ago. The R.I.P Challenge gave me the perfect excuse to read it now, rather than banishing it to the bottom of the TBR mountain.
What I thought: When I started reading this book, I was instantly put in mind of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca which, given how much I loved that novel, can only be a good thing. Sure enough, this book did not disappoint. The Little Strangerhas the same eerie feel, the same crumbling manor house setting, the same complex psychology, and the same basic premise of an outsider breaking into the closed social circles of the landed gentry that has made du Maurier’s work such an enduring classic. In spite of this, Sarah Waters’ book is not in any sense a copycat; it draws on the standard themes of this type of gothic novel and employs them to create a new novel which is fresh, engaging and wonderfully, chillingly open-ended.
It’s very difficult to describe and analyse this book without giving anything away as it is so ambigous. The story concerns the rapidly disintegrating fortunes of the Ayres family and their house, Hundreds Hall, charting their inexorable social and psychological decline at a time of great change in Britain’s history. The book is narrated by Doctor Faraday, a middle aged doctor from a working class background who is the perfect narrator for this story because he is dogmatic, superior and rather dislikeable. His dogged insistance that all the strange events at the hall must have a logical, rational source actually serves to make the reader ever more aware of the possibility that there might not be a reasonable explanation for things, or indeed that he himself is less than innocent.
The chilling uncertainty of the novel is very well balanced. The build up to the strange events is very gradual and the occurance of these events is random so that the reader never knows when the next will happen, creating an atmosphere of suspense. As the novel progresses, these events slowly increase in frequency and develop from being things which are reasonably easy to explain (an old dog biting a young child, for example) into the inexplicable, leaving the reader unsure of exactly what is happening and why. Is the little stranger a ghost? An evil presence brought about through the thoughts of one or other, or possibly even all, of the characters? Is it merely the imaginings of a family of overwrought people struggling desperately to make ends meet? Are they mad? Sarah Waters doesn’t lead the reader to any particular conclusion, but leaves you stranded in your own confused thoughts. I loved this about the book, but I appreciate it isn’t for everyone.
What I enjoyed most about The Little Stranger was that it isn’t just a ghost story or a psychological drama, but also a portrait of the declining fortunes of the aristocracy following the Second World War. Like many others, the Ayres family find themselves inundated with land and a lovely (albeit dilapidated) historic house in which to live, but utterly lacking in money onwhich to live. This is a novel of social history as much as it is of possible paranormal activity, and rather than sitting uneasily side by side, the two aspects are inextricably linked. As the social and economic difficulties for the Ayres family increase, so too do the strange occurrences at the house until the two seem interdependent.
My only quibble with this book, and it is a very tiny one, is related to the narrator. I’ve already mentioned that Faraday is an excellent narrator and character, allowing the novel to have such an eerie feel of ambiguity and suspense, but be that as it may, with the notable exception of Gok Wan I don’t think I’ve ever known or read about a man who pays so much attention to the appearance of the women around him. He notices their complexions; their body types and whether the clothes they wear flatter that shape; their hairstyles and how fashionable they are. Yes, it helps the reader to visualise the characters, but it’s not particularly believable. When listening to the voice of a middle-aged, unmarried, post-war country doctor it is a bit off-putting when it starts to sound like an episode of How to Look Good Naked. However, these descriptions were infrequent enough that they didn’t disrupt my enjoyment. I’m very glad the R.I.P. Challenge prompted me to pick up this book.
Where this book goes: It will be no surprise after reading that review that The Little Stranger is staying put on my shelves along with my other books by Sarah Waters. I hope that it isn’t too long before she writes something else for me to add to my shelves.
Tea talk: This was the perfect book for reading while curled up with a pot of tea on a cold night, and the weather has been rather obliging on that front recently. I’ve been drinking Taylors of Harrogate China rose petal tea, which has a delicate taste and wonderful fragrance which reminds me of summertime and seems an appropriately English flavour to accompany this book.