Reviewing: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

I feel like it’s a legal requirement that every lesbian read a Sarah Waters book. I myself have read three, and been to see one on stage, so needless to say I’m familiar with her work. There were no lesbians in this one (spoiler alert) but there was supernatural suspense, so I read it all the same.

I also read it right now primarily because I was going to go see the movie, but it came out while I was super busy at work and by the time I had free evenings again it was gone. It was while I was sulking about this that some small part of my brain reminded me I’d bought the book in a charity shop about a year ago and had yet to read it – so here we are.

The Little Stranger is the first of Waters’s novels that I’ve encountered set outside of the Victorian Era, placing us instead in post-war Britain in the middle of a century of rapid change. We see through the eyes of Doctor Faraday, a working class boy who has worked his way up to local physician in an age where the NHS is about to be formed and his future as a private practitioner is uncertain. Called out one day to attend a sick servant at Hundreds Hall, the local manor where his mother once worked as a nursery maid and where he visited once as a child, he is astonished to find it much dilapidated since his youth. The Ayres family used to be wealthy and powerful, now they cannot afford to run their own generator and have shut up much of their great old house to decay. This novel is as much an examination of a shift in historical period as it is a ghost story, if not more so. The way of life that had existed for so long in England was changing. Instead of service, young women were going into factory work, instead of owning land, the gentry were selling it.

Growing closer to the family, Faraday’s life becomes inextricably tangled with theirs as both the house and their lives begin to crumble about them. The most cleverly written part of this novel is the ‘haunting’ itself for me – it is impossible to tell if something sinister lurks in Hundreds Hall, or if the loss of their money, their land and most of their home has left the Ayres family vulnerable to tricks of their own minds. Could the sudden change in a man’s personality be because he is fighting to keep at bay the malevolent entity that threatens his family, or because he’s a war veteran with a history of shell shock being pushed towards the edge of his own sanity once again? Are the scratches on the walls a sign of a new, darker presence or the remnants of the life of a child long dead? Doctor Faraday seeks reason and logic in the chaos, but even that offers him no answers.

Sarah Waters has a talent for making characters who, upon reading, you aren’t certain whether you like or not. It is impossible at times to determine whether Doctor Faraday’s interest in the Ayres family is because he likes them, or because he envies their ownership of Hundreds. His mother worked there, he visited it as a child, the great old house has become to him a symbol of what he cannot have – he has worked his way up from working class shopkeeper’s son to doctor, but still there are things even his hard work cannot attain. He is at times a sympathetic character, rather likeable, and grows less so the more he gets involved with Hundreds. He becomes a man who feels entitled to more than he has, who cannot take no for an answer, who makes himself a permanent fixture in life at Hundreds and then seeks to cement that bond. The Ayreses have an air of those who grew up with money, and who are realising now that it is gone how unkind the world can be. They grow each more sympathetic as the novel progresses, an opposite pattern to the descent of Doctor Faraday. My favourite was Caroline, a famously plain woman whose unmarried status and tall, broad stature have marked her as a spinster at 27. She got out of Hundreds, she served as a Wren during the war, and then she was pulled back to care for her injured brother, her ageing mother and a house determined to crumble apart. She and Roderick were born into a life already falling apart at the seams, and it was them I pitied most in the end.

I should have known Waters wasn’t going to wrap everything up neatly, she seldom does, but the lack of definite explanation frustrated me. Whether or not there is a ghost is sort of left up to the reader (that or I was being fantastically dumb whilst reading it and just couldn’t tell), and at times the pace flagged a little, but other than this I really enjoyed reading this book. I was picking it up at every spare moment, unwilling to put it down. Waters is a wonderfully clever writer, her characters are complex and often – bravely – unlikeable. This is not a heroic tale of facing down a great evil, it is a story of loss and decay and how much we want to give answers to everything. Overall I loved it, I just wish it had a more definite ending – but perhaps that’s the point of it all?

If you read it, I’d be interested to hear your take on it – was the Ayres taint at fault? The little stranger creeping the halls?

Overall rating: 📖📖📖📖 4 books out of 5

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