Book review: Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger

Is the house haunted, or is it the family? Are events caused by the adolescent maid? Could it be the doctor? Might it all be a sheer coincidence of events and bad luck?

Sarah WatersSarah Waters’ “The Little Stranger” won the Bath Literature Festival prize in 2009. Though no fan of this literary festival (scroll down to the last but one paragraph of this post), I picked up Sarah Waters’ “The Little Stranger” because it promised to produce goose pimples. Though the author is better known for her Victorian lesbian and gay fiction, “The Little Stranger” deviates from her usual themes and is a gothic novel.

The book starts innocently enough, with a description of an Empire Day fête in 1919. All the people of the district have flocked to the manor house owned by the Ayres family. Among them are the narrator and his mother.

His mother used to work as a nanny at Hundreds Hall. So after the fête, when she wants to gossip with former colleagues, young Faraday is allowed into the manor house. He commits a small act of vandalism. It symbolises his wish to be part of the upper classes and possess a manor house.

Nearly twelve years later, Faraday works as a doctor in the same area. His parents sacrificed a lot to enable him to become a doctor. Yet he was unable to diagnose what ailed his mother. Both his parents are dead now.

Faraday is slightly bitter and jealous of his partner Graham, who comes from a well-to-do family. Among Graham’s patients are the upper-class family still living at the manor house.

Tragedy has struck this family. The eldest child died years ago. The Colonel has died too. His widow remains at the manor house with her two children. Roderick is crippled by a wartime accident. His sister Caroline is a plain spinster.

The family no longer have enough money to maintain the house and grounds, improve the land and farms, to hire staff. Most of the house is locked up and nature is taking over. Instead of being out-going, tragedy and lack of money have caused the family to turn into itself. Faraday meets them when the only remaining live-in servant falls ill.

This is young Betty. She tells Faraday there is something wrong with the house. He treats her premonitions as fancies. He is an educated man, a man of science. When tragedy hits again, events gather strength, the menacing becomes life-threatening, he discusses the case with his fellow doctors. All come with rational explanations and only one mentions a theory which might explain what is going on in the house. But if this theory is true, who causes the events?

Right till the very last page, when the list of casualties seems exhausted but even new inhabitants of the village react to the house like Betty when she started working there, Faraday still wonders. Can everything be explained by logic and science? Or is there really something supernatural, something evil? Was it the house? Or was it the family? Or perhaps something else?

This should make it clear to you, that Sarah Waters’ “The Little Stranger” is a page-turner. The gothic elements contrast sharply with ordinary village life, the gossip, the changing seasons. This contrast between the supernatural and natural life heightens the tension. Especially, when “it grows in strength”.

Faraday’s point of view gives the reader his doubts and interpretation. At times, he is exasperating. On the other hand: might he and his obsession with class, wealth, the manor house, have caused everything?

It is not just tension or supernatural events which Sarah Waters manages to bring to life in such a way they haunt the reader. She convincingly describes the decade after WWII.

Class distinction still exists and it shows in the manner Betty is treated by everybody. Like Faraday’s mother, she works as a servant at the hall. But it takes him till the very end of the book, to actually see her as an individual. In some scenes, the class system is brought out far more clearly. Caroline’s aunt and uncle baulk at the idea that she and Faraday might marry.

People having to come to terms with changes like the introduction of the National Health Service or the disappearance of a way of life, are an important theme of this novel. It’s either going with the tide – or going under. Though at the end of the novel, the manor house still stands mysteriously and menacing.

Atwood Alias GraceSome critics have compared this novel to Atwood’s “Alias Grace”. Both books indeed share a similar kind of tension and mystery, take place in the early 20th century, and touch upon upstairs-downstairs life. Both books were also awarded the Bath Literature Festival prize – before that became owned, sponsored, published and much pushed into the limelight by the UK Independent paper. (See “Did this novel really change the literary landscape?“)

Atwood’s novel “Alias Grace” was awarded the Bath Literature Prize in 1996. Her historic fiction is based on chilling, real events. But though both novels are really good reads, Sarah Water’s “The Little Stranger” will haunt you longer.

Alias Grace”, Margaret Atwood, McClelland & Stewart, 1996. This novel won several literary prizes and is available as hardcover, pocket, audio, kindle.
The Little Stranger”, Sarah Waters, 2009. This novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and is available as hardcover, pocket, audio, kindle.

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