To be honest I have always had a bit of a soft spot for ghost stories but even allowing for a certain bias regarding the subject matter this is without doubt a blindingly good novel. On the surface it is all so deceptively simple. A country doctor, approaching a dreary and unloved middle age, finds himself paying regular visits to the local stately pile where he encounters the once grand but now rather moth-eaten Ayres family. Soon afterwards strange and seemingly supernatural events begin to take place: the formerly placid family dog attacks a small child; strange marks appear on the walls; bells ring for no apparent reason; doors occasionally seem to lock themselves and sinister scribbles inexplicably turn up on doors and windowsills. Dr Faraday seeks, and believes he finds, a rational explanation for the strange events but the Ayres are altogether less sure.
What makes this apparently rather simple set-up so compelling is the skill with which Waters applies layer after gentle, rustling layer of doubt, paranoia and unease. Dr Faraday is, for example, a far from perfect narrator. Unimaginative, class-conscious and painfully aware that he doesn't have the 'right accent' to fit in with the grand Ayres he finds himself alternating between cloying resentment towards the family one minute and fawning servility the next. In turn the Ayres have fallen on financially ruinous times and the - from their perspective - frankly unpleasant plebian classes are literally encroaching on Ayres territory in the form of council houses being built on land skirting Hundreds Hall. Working class on the way up collides with landed gentry on the way down. The whole situation is a portrait in minature of post-war England preparing to tear itself apart. Throw in a possible romance and an unhappy event from the Ayres's recent past and you have an explosive mixture - sort of 'Rebecca' meets 'The Turn of the Screw' via Borley Rectory.
I finished reading The Little Stranger a few days ago and it hasn't settled quietly into its grave. It rustles and creaks; it casts shadows where shadows really shouldn't be and it refuses to tie itself up into a neat little bundle of comfortable conclusions. The more I think about it the more wheels within wheels within wheels I begin to see. It's beautifully elegant and it flows in the way only novels written by born story-tellers ever seem to manage; and more than anything else it creeps up on you in subtle, disturbing ways. Sarah Waters is one of our finest novelists and while this may not have the immediate shock impact of, say, Fingersmith, I think in its quiet and deceptively gentle way it is every bit as good. A beautiful novel with dark, haunted depths.
on 21 October 2014
There is a fundamental enigma at the heart of this excellent novel set in England in the austere and grim years after the Second World War: is Hundreds Hall, the elegant but crumbling house belonging to the Ayres family haunted, or are the weird phenomena merely the perceptions of the rather disturbed inhabitants? Dr Faraday, an unmarried general practitioner in his late thirties, whilst on a visit to attend to a servant in the house gradually gets to know the Ayres family – the middle–aged widow Mrs Ayres and her two grown-up children Roderick and Caroline. Faraday comes from a working class background and has had to work hard to achieve and maintain his professional position, and the clash between his social class and that of the gentrified Ayres is a main thread in the story. Childhood memories of a visit to the Hall, where Faraday’s own mother, who died young, was a nursery maid just after World War One, provide the impetus for his intense interest and obsession with the house and its occupants. Faraday is the rationalist who explains away the seemingly paranormal, but is helpless as tragedy afflicts both the Ayres and then Faraday himself.
Sarah Waters has quickly gained a well-deserved reputation for her fiction and this book is excellently narrated in the first person by Dr Faraday, with whom the reader develops an ambiguous relationship, for at times he seems obtuse and selfish, while at others, the readers empathises with the perplexities he is faced with. The decline of landed gentry and the rise of new wealth in England still struggling to recover from the War is very much the leitmotif, as the telling historical context is accurate and credible.
I'm torn regarding this novel. Many years ago, I read Fingersmith (which is probably still Sarah Waters' most beloved book among readers). I'll start out by saying that this is no Fingersmith. It totally lacks the excitement, pace, twists and shocks of Fingersmith. So if you're coming to this novel expecting more of the same, you'll be disappointed. Nor is it anything like Tipping the Velvet which was compelling but also very uplifting in parts - and also had its fair share of excitement. The Little Stranger is an altogether more subdued novel - I'd go so far as to say it's quite depressing in its own way. However, it's not particularly creepy. If you're expecting a Woman in Black type story, this isn't it. The ghost elements are very low key - in fact, for much of the book, we're left wondering (along with Dr Faraday who attends to the Ayres family, first in the form of physician but, as the novel progresses, more as a family friend) whether the incidents that befall the family and plague Hundreds Hall (their crumbling stately pile) are psychological or paranormal. Indeed, the answers to this are never entirely conclusive - although you can draw your own inferences. For the most part though, the novel centers around Dr Faraday's developing relationship with the family and, in particular, Caroline, the daughter of the household. I don't want to give away the plot, but it was here that the more depressing elements of the novel crept in. It's not that I necessarily wanted the novel to go in a different direction but, perhaps, I just wanted more drama instead of the sad little story it began to turn into.
Nothing really happened in this novel that was unexpected - even the ending I guessed in advance. And I sort of felt a bit let down. It's not that I wanted the multiple twists of Fingersmith, but when a writer pulls off such a magnificently twisty novel first time round, there are certain expectations.
All that being said, I did find this novel very readable. In less able hands, it would have been a two or three star - simply because nothing very much ever happens, what does happen takes a long time to get going, and lots of it are quite repetitive. However, Waters is such a fantastic writer and captures a sense of time and place that reading her work is a sheer joy. What it lacks in pacy plot, it makes up for in quality of writing - transporting the reader to another era entirely.
on 3 February 2013
I used to have a rule that if I started a book, I had to finish it. I am not as strict these days and I would have thrown it aside if it had really bored me. It was quite entertaining in a way but talk about a slow burner! There is no hint of any kind of supernatural activity until you are a good bit of the way into the book and ultimately, I found the denouement rather unsatisfying. It seems to me that though there were serious things in this back, comments on the social changes in England after the war, these were somehow poorly linked to the ghost story (if that's what it really was). It reminded me of the excellent Troubles by JG Farrell but without black humour. So, I sort of enjoyed it and I would read another of her books, but I wouldn't read this one again. Please stop reading now if you haven't read the book, as the next paragraph has several kinds of spoilers.
Is it just me, but in constructing a mental picture of the characters, I made a fatal mistake early in the book. The character of Caroline, gawky, tall, plain, good-humoured, aristocratic, just made me think of Miranda Hart! So even the dramatic finale of the destiny of the Ayres family became transformed in my imagination into a Miranda skit. "You" (mouths to camera), runs gawkily, trips over her nightshirt and flips over the balcony ...
on 9 September 2014
This book gripped me, pulled me into its world, and didn't let go. This is the first book I've read of Waters, and it won't be the last. Her writing is so eloquent, knowledgeable, satisfying and wholesome, that I devoured her words, page after page, sinking into its time and place, until eventually I found myself more as a participant in that world than a voyeur on the sidelines. Some people have complained that it was too long, or that not very much happened, which although that might be true to a point, I would also say that the writing is so good that you don't mind, instead I was unsuspectingly drawn into the world, deeper and deeper and loving every minute of it. As I neared the end and after certain things happened to certain people, no spoilers here, I felt genuinely affected and found the building tension palpable, puzzling, exhilarating all at once. I implore people to pick up this book and see it through to the end. Some people have also commented on the end being disappointing, but I would have to say that this book is a journey, which by the end is free to live on in our own minds, and our own imaginations.
The opening recalls Rebecca (Virago modern classics)'s opening 'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again' or Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder; novels which have great houses at their centre.
The narrator here is the local boy done good; he is a doctor but his mother was once a nursemaid at the great house. He is the outsider in a county family world, an emblem of societal change. He had first visited the house on Empire day and received a medal from the lady of the house - now post WWII he can be a guest and even a suitor for the daughter of the family. As a narrator he is somewhat plodding and in the hands of a less polished author the story could have faltered but Waters carries it off.
I was (of course) reminded of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories (Oxford World's Classics). It is never clear in that long short story whether everything is on the governess's head or whether there is a ghost. In this novel I thought that Waters made it quite clear gradually and the last lines are very significant.
Poltergeists are usually youngsters going through puberty and the two newcomers to the family when the odd events start to happen, and the house and family disintegrate, are the young maid and the doctor. But our narrator is not reliable, his obsession with the house and family are extreme and as I said above the last lines are significatn in identifying 'the little stranger'.
Waters is good on class and the sense of time and place are very strong. On training a maid Mr Ayres says `I always remember my great-aunt saying that a well run house was like an oyster. Girls come to one as specks of grit you see; ten years later, they leave one as pearls'.
This novel is a pearl, less successful perhaps than some of her others but a very satisfying read.
Simply written yet with lots of possible interpretations (when you've finished do read the debate on the book on Amazon forum.)
I found this a gripping read- set in 1940s Warwickshire and narrated by a family doctor who becomes friends with an impoverished genteel family. There appear to be ghostly goings-on but the reader is unsure what to think; the maid alleges there's something bad, but we know she doesn't want to work there anyway. (Could she be playing tricks?) The son's aware of 'it' but he's a bit strange after his experiences in the War.(Is he delusional?) Keep on reading... (But dont read page 160 on your own, you'll never sleep again!)
Didn't think I liked ghost stories but this is an intelligent and intriguing read.
Sarah Waters is a magnificent writer – I can’t think of anything she has written that hasn’t resonated wonderfully with me. She’s a prizewinner of the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, the BBC National Short Story Award, the Portico Prize for Fiction, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the E M Forster Award. I don’t think she’s finished with prizewinning at all, however, she’s one of the best kept secrets of a growing initiate.
“The Little Stranger”, however, worried me before I began reading it as I’d been told it was very spooky. I don’t care for spooky – I like my books set in a recognisable presence, whatever age it is set it. I don’t care for horror at all. But actually, I liked this book in spite of all I’d thought I would abhor. And yes, it is spooky. But for all it has shivery moments, it is still so well thought through and so firmly set in it’s time that I quite forgot about my fears as soon as I started reading. It involves a family in those days long past before we had a National Health Service, when the doctor who is the narrator and main protagonist worries about his patients, especially those who are poor.
As well as this he has a patient who was scarred during the First World War when his plane was shot down. This young man, however, lives in a huge mansion, one which is slowly rotting away. He lives with his mother and sister and it is Mrs Ayers and her daughter, plus a maid-of-all-work, 15 year old Betty, with whom we become mainly involved.
Slowly a series of inexplicable events creep up and begin to hold you in a state of nervous unease and you wonder if there could really be something in the house that is evil. The characters are wonderfully developed and the suspense begins hold the reader in a truly frightening charm. There is an explanation for everything, but it is clouded by the tremendously chilling atmosphere of the book. I should have hated it, but once hooked there was no escape from this book.
on 29 April 2015
**spoiler alert** Once I picked this up and gave it a couple of chapters, this only took me two days to read. Despite the loveliness of the prose, it is a slow starter. This is necessary however. The beginning is largely foreshadowing for the ultimate conclusion.
I've read a few other reviews which have criticized the narrator and said that the supernatural aspect was a waste of time. I can see why those conclusions might be drawn - at one point in particular it does look like the ghost story is a red herring. And yet...
This is where Waters' research is so beautifully woven into the story; the slowly dying class distinctions, the death of a way of life in the British countryside, the largely underground spiritualist movement - out of fashion but not gone.
Faraday is not especially likeable. On the other hand he is easy to sympathies with. Real or imagined, he's spent his entire life on the outside looking in. Even post WWII Britain was not a meritocracy. (News flash American cousins - it still isn't now!) so all his hard work and his parents sacrifices meant nothing because he came from no family to speak of and spoke with the wrong accent. Fine for a country doctor but really that only just got him through the front door and not the servants entrance. His real problem is that he almost subconsciously yearns for a lifestyle like that of the British Gentry. Less the money and more the status. That combined with a chip on his shoulder about not ever being good enough and being rather emotionally closed off, left him with a dark tangle if something very poisonous. We'll get back to that.
So here we have two people pretty much locked into old class distinctions. The sort of finish Faraday lacks is not something he can just pick up. This is not Pygmalion. The poise and finished manners are something the gentry are almost born knowing. And there are still hints of it today - while few titled or landed individuals of old family would make you use the tradesman's entrance or snub you for being middle class, it's still something that's bred in somehow. (I've met enough of them to know!) faraday is subtly snubbed - not being recognized as a guest at the party, the subtle put downs and the suggestion that he should not be looking at Caroline as if he were good enough. Then later Mrs Ayres admitting that she thought initially that he wasn't good enough - nice as she is.
This isn't a story about a man's bitterness over what someone else has, as has been suggested. This is about the fact that he desires things - the land, the park, Hundreds, Caroline ultimately - that are forever out of his reach. And it is subtle.
As for the ghost, this was deft and gradually more menacing and malevolent. Faraday is the only one who utterly doesn't believe until the end. And at the end when he comes closest to believing, he pulls back because he would have had to confront the truth about his own bitterness and longing.
So here's my take - major spoiler alert btw - the ghost or little stranger is a manifestation of Faraday's own impotent and subconscious desire. Consider the small act of vandalism when he is there as a child. He admits then that even so early as that he wanted to own a piece of the house - and he keeps the prided off plaster acorn! For thirty odd years, along with other bits of Hundreds memorabilia. Then consider the unusual degree of interest he shows in both the family and the house's state when early on he doesn't know them at all. Aside from that first trip to see the maid, he is never paid for his visits and by later on in the book he comes and goes as one of the family. The attack on Gillian by Gyp happens after Faraday has been slighted and has realised that the party is to try and get Caroline married off. Without real using it, Faraday has begun to think of Caroline as his and himself as belonging at hundreds. Then there is the increasing nastiness of the attacks on Rod - mater of the house who needs getting out of the way. A further barrier exists in the form of Mrs Ayres who is then herself tormented to death. And the attacks stop. Caroline is going to marry Faraday and he believes they will live at hundreds and restore it to it's former glory, as if he'd finally been born into the right family.
And then she breaks it off and worse still puts Hundreds up for sale - the estate will be broken up, the house will be pulled down or converted. It's very telling that Caroline's suspicious fall occurs on what would have been their wedding night. All of this, Faraday almost pieces together when he takes the stand at the inquest but he pulls back because it means finally pointing the finger at himself. And we're left with Faraday, still possessor of a set of keys, letting himself into Hundreds and trying to keep it clean and repaired. Possessor at last of the house he coveted where the ghost will not show itself because the ghost, the little stranger is Faraday's id. His 'dark passenger'.
There is plausible deniability too. Perhaps Faraday managed to clear the house by mundane means. He had the opportunity as family physician. He had keys to get into the house and go up to the second floor to lure Caroline to her death.
I think it's the idea that this greedy, acquisitive aspect of Faraday's that might have issued forth to cause mischief when he felt threatened or slighted, that really gave me the chills. And I think that's the answer.,Faraday haunted and still haunts Hundreds.
This is multilayered and masterfully done. A strong, caustic finger pointed at how we all carry our own little strangers which if unacknowledged may break out and act independently. Faraday is the bottom line in unreliable narrators, so deftly drawn that people have taken him on face value.
In many ways this is a genuinely creepy book.
Highly recommend if you have time to really sit and read this.
on 15 November 2013
This was a fantastic book. Well-written, atmospheric, chilling, creepy. I got completely sucked into the story and stayed up late into the night to finish it. The narrator was such a skilled creation I'll easily rank this as one of the best first-person narratives I've ever read. The twist is so subtle that while I had a suspicion I didn't know for sure until it happened - and what a turn it was, and how masterfully executed.
In addition to carefully crafted plot and fully-fleshed out, engaging characters Waters' writing is just such a joy to read. She does not misplace a single word.
I am in awe, and excited for having discovered this writer. Can't wait to read more of her books.