I would not have picked this book based on the cover: gothic, author’s name is Sarah Waters – I expected it to be another cheesy “governess wins heart of rich master of scary house” novel, or to be like a bad late night movie that you can’t stop watching no matter how tired you are.
Instead, what I found was a subtle, clever and well researched mixture of literary novel, Gothic novel and ghost story. It was like reading an English classic without all of the archaic words.
Set in post-World War II England, The Little Stranger tells the story of the Ayres family, once wealthy and now in decline, trying (and failing) to keep up with their family estate Hundreds Hall. The narrator is Dr. Faraday, a local doctor from humble beginnings who fell in love with Hundreds Hall as a boy, and becomes involved with the family, first as a doctor, then as a friend.
But is Dr. Faraday a friend of the Ayres? As he tells it, he becomes close to the family, yet you never find out his first name. That seems strange: if they were such good friends, why do they continue to call him “Doctor”? He seems to think he is more important to the family than he really is. You can’t tell if he truly cares about the family, or is using them to get ahead in the world. Or are they using him?
Nothing supernatural happens until you’re about one-fourth into the book, and when it does, Dr. Faraday refuses to entertain any explanation but a rational one. When members of the family believe there is a ghost in the house, he says they are tired and stressed, and if they continue to believe, he calls them mentally ill and suggests sending them to a psychiatric institution. It seems like there is a darker intent behind his stubbornness. Waters sets up this scenario masterfully, so that I became more of a believer, oddly enough, or at least willing to believe that something outside of the rational world was at play.
Waters does an excellent job of describing how English life was changed after World War II: the rationing, class differences breaking down, the landed gentry being forced to sell their land. She weaves this into the story in a matter of fact way, without falling into the author trap of over-erudition.
Often when I read a book I cannot put down, I feel like the author has stuck voodoo pins into me, and I have no choice but to read on until the final crescendo. Waters doesn’t stoop that low – she respects your intelligence. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Read it!