by Sarah Waters
480 pages, Riverhead Hardcover (publisher)
Review by S. P. Miskowski
The Little Stranger author Sarah Waters had her first success with another historical novel Tipping the Velvet. Her subsequent novels Affinity, Fingersmith, and The Night Watch have proven that she is a subtle and accomplished stylist whose extensive research allows her to write characters of different historical periods with the authority of an eyewitness. Waters' attention to detail is one of the most striking things about The Little Stranger, and it allows her to venture into highly speculative territory without sacrificing an inch of plausibility.
The novel is a literary ghost story set in England in 1947. When Dr. Faraday takes the place of a busy colleague and visits a sick housekeeper at Hundreds Hall, he can't help comparing the rundown Georgian mansion to his memory of the place when he saw it as a child. His mother was once the nursery maid there, when the Ayres family was socially prominent and the house was tended fulltime by more than two-dozen servants. As a boy, Faraday was so taken with the majesty of Hundreds Hall that he stole a bit of plaster decoration while touring the house with his mother. Now a middle-aged country doctor, Faraday is sad to see how far the Ayres home and the family itself have fallen.
Colonel Ayres, who was master of Hundreds Hall when Faraday was a boy, is long since dead. Mrs. Ayres still secretly mourns the loss of her first child--her favorite--to diphtheria. Her son Roderick has returned from the war shattered at the age of twenty-four, and daughter Caroline has come home to nurse Roderick and Mrs. Ayres for an indefinite period. The fourteen-year-old maid whom Dr. Faraday attends to is the only live-in servant, aided part-time by an older woman from the nearby town. The young maid, Betty tells the doctor that she isn't feeling well, but he decides that her malaise is a combination of home sickness and sensitivity to the decaying house with its many nooks and crannies and isolated, unused rooms.
Because of his duties in the community and his attraction to Hundreds Hall, Dr. Faraday is friendly with the family. He sympathizes with their reduced circumstances and becomes both their general physician and confidante. It's fascinating to watch the interplay between the doctor whose working class parents made enormous sacrifices for an education that ultimately separated the two generations, and the formerly entitled Ayres family forced to do cheap maintenance on their home and sell off parcels of land all around the estate just to make ends meet.
The author has contrived a situation in which two distinct classes communicate more intimately than they would otherwise have done. Their misunderstandings and shifting loyalties reflect Britain as a whole, after the war. A once powerful aristocracy is losing ground in a country struggling toward economic recovery and social change. Not everyone looks forward to such change. Surprisingly, Roderick and Caroline try to take their losses in stride. They see Hundreds Hall as an unavoidable burden. Dr. Faraday, however, spent his youth climbing the social ladder, and his admiration for the lost grandeur of Hundreds Hall is emblematic of his desire for something more.
During a somewhat embarrassing party the Ayres family throws together to introduce Caroline to a likely suitor, Dr. Faraday is suddenly made aware of the vast differences between himself and his newfound friends. The awareness causes him lasting bitterness. Faraday is not alone in feeling bitter. Before the night ends a terrible event occurs, and everyone involved regrets this last ditch attempt at saving the family through a fortunate marriage.
There is an element of mystery to everything that happens after this point in the story, and a superbly timed, gradual accumulation of dread. Strange things take place, and they are centered on a heightened sense of anxiety for each character. Waters presents most of the weird developments as secondhand accounts, told to Faraday by members of the Ayres household. In this way she captures the immediacy and fear of each event, while examining it through Faraday's objectivity. The result is both eerie and ambiguous. She gives us the essence of a character's fear and wonder, while maintaining a sense of mystery. We've all heard of places where strange and terrible things happen, and we've reasoned them away. Yet there is something at the heart of it, causing or inspiring fear.
Roderick feels that there is a presence in the house that wants to injure him for selling off the estate bit by bit. Mrs. Ayres, in her futility over the present and future, is drawn back to memories of a happier time when her first daughter was alive. This was the last time Mrs. Ayres herself felt truly alive, and lingering in this emotional state leads to one of the more horrific sequences I have encountered in contemporary fiction. It takes place, naturally enough, in the upstairs nursery.
The beauty of The Little Stranger is how deftly Waters has recreated a believable world of the past, with all of its clashes and conflicts, and further disrupted that world by introducing mysterious occurrences that might be supernatural or might be caused by extreme states such as despair, grief, envy, and unrequited passion. The story moves at its own pace, forcing the reader to play along. The novel is as much a study of a certain time and place as it is a ghostly tale. There are no broad strokes here, but the minute ones will make the hair on your neck stand up, and will encourage you to turn on the light before entering an empty room.