The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

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The Little Stranger is a rare book; one that is both genuinely terrifying and also deeply emotionally involving, that left me reluctant yet desperate to turn its pages. I haven’t read anything by Sarah Waters in years; she was on my university syllabus with her first novel, Fingersmith, which I very much enjoyed, but for some reason I have never felt particularly compelled to read any more of her work. This will now change.

A modern update to that marvellous of Victorian traditions, the sensation novel, The Little Stranger tells the story of Dr Faraday, a resident of a small, backwater town in rural Warwickshire, and his relationship with the Ayres family of Hundreds Hall, the local ‘big house’. The novel starts with a sun dappled Edwardian afternoon, with Dr Faraday as a child at a Hundreds Hall Empire Day party, being impressed by the beauty and splendour of this luxurious mansion and that of its owners, the young Mrs and Colonel Ayres. His mother, a former servant at the house, takes him inside to the servants’ quarters, and he sneaks upstairs into the hushed coolness of the marble corridored, portrait hung hall. Desperate to take something of the Hall home with him, he uses his pocket knife to wrench a plaster acorn out of a decorative cornice before running back to his mother.

Flashing forward to the depressed days of post war 1940s England, Dr Faraday is now in early middle age and living above his GP practice in the same town where he grew up. A chance call out to Hundreds Hall in the absence of the family’s usual doctor gives him the opportunity to revisit the house that has held such a fascination for him since his childhood. To his dismay, the house has fallen into terrible disrepair over the years, and is barely recognisable as the grand location of the Empire Day party so many years before. Mrs Ayres, now widowed, lives in the house with her plain spinster daughter Caroline and her son Roderick, who was badly wounded in the war. They live amidst the ruins of their once fine house, keeping up appearances as best they can, but Dr Faraday soon realises that the family are under enormous financial pressure and finding it near impossible to keep things afloat.

After seeing to their servant girl, Betty, who is faking a stomach ache due to her desire to leave the house she deems ‘bad’, Dr Faraday finds himself welcomed by the Ayres family and encouraged to return to try and help Roderick regain movement in his damaged legs. As time passes, Dr Faraday becomes an increasingly frequent visitor, confided in by the family and deeply involved in their affairs. However, a series of events begins to trouble the family soon after Dr Faraday’s arrival on the scene. Betty and Roderick claim there is a ‘bad’ thing in the house. Dr Faraday refuses to believe it, but with Caroline, who he is growing to love, becoming increasingly convinced that all is not well, and the health and happiness of the house’s inhabitants growing more precarious by the day, an explanation for the events needs to be found. Is it paranoia, brought on by the stresses of maintaining Hundreds? Is it a family ‘taint’ of the mind? Or are there darker, supernatural forces at work to destroy the family and their home?

This is a novel with so many absorbing strands that it’s difficult to give an overview without missing something. Coupled with the mystery of what is really happening at Hundreds is the fascinating context of post war England. Hundreds’ park has had to be sold to the council to recoup money, and council houses have been built right up to the garden wall, a perfect metaphor for the decline of the aristocracy and the country house after the war. Dr Faraday is anxious about the coming of the NHS, and what that will do to his practice. The town is flat, depressed, unsophisticated; in a world of ration coupons, poverty, unemployment and poor housing, the highlight of Dr Faraday’s social calendar is the local hospital dance. The decaying surroundings of Hundreds add to this gloomy outlook, representing effortlessly the state of a country newly emerged from the shadows of another devastating war. Amidst all of this period detail, the reader is asked to decipher what exactly is going on at Hundreds Hall. Is it madness? Is it the ghost of a former inhabitant? Or, as the final lines tantalisingly suggest, is the answer a little closer to home? Read it and decide for yourself…

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38 comments

  1. A difficult book to discuss openly if one is not to give the ending away! I agree that turning the pages was a double edged sword – I wanted to keep reading because you become so involved with the characters, but equally disinclined through fear of what might be lurking on the next page. It’s a powerful and well written book in my opinion.

    1. I know – I really want to discuss the ending with people to see if they think the same as I do! Absolutely – I actually had to sleep with the light on after reading it one night!!

    1. I didn’t know that it was inspired by another book! Thanks Mary – I’ve been meaning to read a Josephine Tey for ages. Didn’t she write one about the princes in the tower?

  2. I’ve been wanting to read this book for ages, but for some reason or the other it goes to the back of my mind, and I never remember to look for it while book shopping.

    Thanks for the lovely review. It was also so atmospheric.

  3. I wonder why I haven’t read more of Sarah Waters. I loved her “Tipping the Velvet”. This one sounds delicious.

  4. Ooh, the characters in this one stuck with me for ages! I remember reading one night and at a hold-your-breath scary moment my razor slipped from the edge of the tub in the next room. No one was in the bathroom….eek! Just found out about Sarah’s next book called The Paying Guests, it sounds equally intriguing and I can’t wait.

    1. That sounds terrifying! I had to sleep with the light on while I was reading it…every creak had my heart pounding!! Yes the new book sounds fab – I can’t wait for it!

  5. I absolutely loved this book. It was my first Waters, and I am so glad I started with it. It was one of those rare books that I actually wanted to read slower because I wanted to savor it.

  6. This was definitely one of the better “new”(-ish) books I read this year. That ending really was something…I even found myself obsessing over it to the point that I looked up scholarly articles (translation: I’m a dork) to see how others interpreted it. I read this one analysis in particular that took the book from being a 4-star read to a 5-star, just like that. Good literature with some solid spooky-factor! Wish I could find more like it.

    1. Ha! I did that too, trying to find out if anyone thought the same as me! I definitely think getting other perspectives is part of the enjoyment of reading – it adds another dimension! You should try Fingersmith if you haven’t read it – it’s similarly mysterious and based on The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, another fabulous read!

  7. I had to go back and dig out what I had written for this book. It was 4 years ago that I read it. I did not find it particularly spooky or eerie as some. It made me question, reason and rationalisation but it is a well written novel and I enjoyed it. I must get round to reading Fingersmith which has sat on my shelf for ages.

  8. I found this gripping and TERRIFYING, mostly because I was reading it in an old Gothic youth hostel in the middle of nowhere… but I was really frustrated by the ending. I shan’t say more for the risk of spoiling it…

    1. Oh, Simon! I could not have read it under those circumstances! I had to go to the loo in the night when I was reading it and I was terrified to leave my bedroom…if I’d been in a gothic youth hostel I would have been paralysed with fear!! Frustrated? I am keen to hear more! Did you think what I thought, I wonder?!

  9. I find Waters to be a writer who comes up with fabulous premises, writes a spectacular book for about three-quarters of the way, and then peters out at the end, not sustaining the momentum or resolving the situations she’s previously set up (she reminds me of Sophie Hannah in that regard). Waters has said that sometimes she doesn’t know how a book is going to end when she starts–and I think that shows. The book of hers I like best is The Night Watch which, being told in essence backwards, avoids the problem of the faltering ending.

    1. That’s really interesting, Deb! I didn’t feel that way but I can see what you mean. I find it intriguing that she has that method…strange that she’s sort of making it up as she goes along! I intend on reading The Night Watch next…I wonder whether I will like it as much?

  10. I too loved this book, it’s scary and lush and really fun to read. When I finished, I immediately read The Night Watch, which I also enjoyed (though it’s not as scary!). These are perfect books for snowy winter evenings, Little Stranger being the one I would choose first.

  11. Hmm. Maybe I’ll forgive you for not properly acknowledging Rebecca, if you keep talking like this R.

    I heard about Fingersmith years ago. Might have been the Radio 4 Book Club.

    Now I see you do indeed understand the dark imaginary, can you deny the shiver in your spine as I say “Last night I dreamt of Manderley again”??

    I will neither forget nor desist.

    – bop.

  12. I chose The Little Stranger a few years ago for my book club choice – generally it went down well although some were judgemental because it was classified as a ‘ghost story.’ I loved it and found it to be a page turner that I had to slow down to take in all the detail and clues! It’s definitely my favourite and I enjoyed Fingersmith but wasn’t so keen on the Night Watch.

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