Review: ‘The Little Stranger’ by Sarah Waters

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Wednesday, September 15, 2010 - Save & Share - 7 Comments

Title: The Little Stranger

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.

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7 Responses to “Review: ‘The Little Stranger’ by Sarah Waters”

Comment from Stephanie
Time September 15, 2010 at 10:34 pm

As soon as I saw your comparison to Rebecca, I was even more convinced I need to read this book. Soon I swear!

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time September 16, 2010 at 5:11 pm

I’m glad my review has swayed you; I’m always happy to help a fellow book addict with reccommendations. Thanks so much for stopping by to comment again.

Comment from Laura
Time September 16, 2010 at 10:38 pm

I really want to read this now! I read ‘Affinity’ recently.

What’s your bookmooch name? I joined on your recommendation!

You must come to us for dinner soon.


Comment from oldenglishrose
Time September 16, 2010 at 11:01 pm

It took me a while to work out who you were then; I must be getting slow in my old age. My BookMooch name is Ygraine, but my inventory is all stuff I want to get rid of so I’m not sure if any of it will interest you. I thoroughly recommend this book though.
It would be lovely to meet up sometime soon, now you’re a lady of leisure.

Comment from Laura
Time September 17, 2010 at 11:51 am

Sadly I’m nothing of the sort. I’m helping run to a community centre. But there’s always time for you!

Comment from PolishOutlander
Time September 21, 2010 at 3:13 pm

I recently read and wrote about Tipping the Velvet. I absolutely loved it! I had no idea I would enjoy her book so much. I have the DVD of the BBC series at home waiting to be watched. I already have Fingersmith on its way to me from Paperbackswap, and I’ll probably end up reading The Little Stranger as well. Curiously, I could never get through Rebecca, even though I tried reading it a few times. I’m sure I’m missing out on something there. Great to hear that this one is a good read.

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time September 21, 2010 at 3:59 pm

I’ll have to go and find your review, as it’s always interesting to see what other people say about books I’ve enjoyed. ‘Tipping the Velvet’ and ‘Fingersmith’ are both excellent but I wasn’t quite as keen on ‘Night Watch’ (although that’s not to say it wasn’t a very good book, it just didn’t appeal in quite the same way). Enjoy reading through Sarah Waters.

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