The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
|The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Kate Lord Brown|
|Summary: The haunting tale of an aristocratic family's decline.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 512||Date: May 2009|
|Publisher: Virago Press Ltd|
When was the last time you couldn't put a Booker nominated novel down? Sarah Waters, author of acclaimed novels Fingersmith and The Night Watch has written a chilling psychological ghost story that kept me guessing until the very last page.
Hundreds Hall, the loneliest house in Warwickshire has been home to the Ayres family for two centuries. Post World War II, both the house and family are in decline – cracks are appearing in walls, relationships, psyches. If, like me, you love stories in which the house is as much a character as the people, you will enjoy the descriptions of the dilapidated Georgian mansion. The gardens are choked with weeds ('an ancient ha-ha it's sides so … overgrown it was more truthfully … a boo-hoo'). Cars battle through brambles and trees to reach the house, entire rooms – wasted chambers - and floors are closed off and unused.
More than once the characters talk of the parkland as an enchanted sleeping forest – and there is a chilling, fairytale feel to the place. 'How this house likes to catch us out,' Mrs Ayres says. 'As if it knows all our weaknesses and is testing them one by one …' Waters conjures the atmosphere of Hundreds brilliantly – an old dog's claws patter on marble 'like the clicking beads of an abacus', wooden boards creak 'almost luxuriously … like cats extending themselves in the sun'. The faded grandeur of the place is beguiling but sinister. People disappear into the bowels of the house 'as if stepping through a rip in the night and instantly sealing it up behind' them. It is like a spell has been cast over Hundreds but who is responsible – society, the family or the malevolent 'little stranger' of the title?
The story is narrated by Faraday, who, like his famous namesake, is a man of science. He is a country GP from a humble background, and he has been fascinated by Hundreds since he was a small boy. When he is called out to tend to a young maid terrified by something in the rambling house he finally has the chance to get to know the place and the family intimately. Faraday is a rational man, but even he finds it hard to explain what is going on. As events take a tragic and chilling turn, he is drawn further into the Ayres' lives. This house is making us all crazy, he says and he notes how the Hall had a disconcertingly palpable air of stress and tension. He's a compelling but not terribly likable narrator, swinging between envious dislike for the Ayres and fawning servility. This is as much a book about a decaying way of life as anything – meritocracy vs aristocracy, and through Faraday's eyes we see the collapse of the family. I'm beginning to think my family must have some sort of curse upon it, Mrs Ayres says to him. As Waters conjures a mounting sense of menace and hysteria you have to agree with her.
Some reviews have said this novel rambles on, not enough happens, that it is not as good as Waters' earlier books, that as a ghost story it is not creepy enough. However, if like me you have an overactive imagination, love books with a strong sense of place and narrative drive I'm sure you'll find this a page-turner you can't put down. This is a brilliant novel, ideal to lose yourself in on chill autumn evenings by a crackling log fire.
If this book appeals to you then we think that you might enjoy another book long listed for the 2009 Man Booker prize - How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters at Amazon.com.
Like to comment on this review?
Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.