The Little Stranger: Sarah Waters is so skillful

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Little Stranger by Sarah Waters The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Caution: it is difficult to write about The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters and not give anything away. This post might contain spoilers.

The Little Stranger is a book about a haunted house. Sarah Waters evokes emotion masterfully here. It’s not heart-pounding terror or a nauseated response to some gruesome revelation. She evokes dread, dread and a growing sense of anxiety that has you peering into the shadows and flinching at the creaks and sighs of your own house.

Hundreds Hall is a stately home in the English countryside, inhabited by the Ayres family. In 1949, when the story begins, the house is in near ruin, bottoming out of a slow slide to decay that started in the 20s. Three Ayreses live there now, the last of the line.

The story is told by Dr. Faraday, a local country doctor. His parents were servant class — his mother was a nursemaid at Hundred Hall for a time — who sacrificed and saved to send their son to medical school. Now Faraday is a practicing physician, not as successful as he’d like, and is in limbo, no longer servant class, unsure of where he belongs. Hundreds Hall has been a lodestone for him, the Great House, the symbol of the old aristocracy. When he is first called there for a medical visit he is shocked by the state of the place; the untended park, the overgrown garden, the leaking roof and the shut-up rooms. He is, however, charmed by the Ayres family and accepts their fantasy of genteel impoverishment. Waters opens the book slowly, mostly to let the reader see the state of Hundreds in the brutally honest light of day. Mrs. Ayres, the grand dame, is unable to do much except pine after the great old days. Her older surviving child, Caroline, forms a tenuous friendship with Faraday, while Roderick, the youngest and the only son, wounded in World War II, struggles to maintain the estate.

Waters is sure of herself and her skill, and takes the time she needs. It isn’t until the disastrous cocktail party on page 92 that the first terrible thing happens. It seems, to the characters at least, to be a horrible but natural occurrence. The reader knows better. After the event and its aftermath, both of which show Faraday as a doctor and at his best, things quiet down at Hundreds for a time. This is stillness, not peace, a coiled stillness fraught with speculation.

Roderick is the second victim of the thing — Caroline refers to it as an “energy” — that haunts Hundreds. Later in the book a character lectures Faraday about poltergeist activity, and how it appears in places where there is a reservoir of repressed emotion. There is plenty of repression at Hundreds. Mrs. Ayres, the Lady of the Manor, has never felt love for her two surviving children, and still mourns Susan, the daughter who died before they were born. Caroline, who during the war had a taste of freedom, of life, has had her leash jerked up short when she was called back to nurse her injured brother. Caroline, in fact, now lives her life in service to an estate that, because of British entailment laws, she is destined to lose. Roderick is more crippled by the responsibility of the failing property than by his damaged leg.

Faraday, while reporting this all to us faithfully, is blind to it himself, willfully choosing to see the sight of the Ayreses nesting like a family of raccoons in one or two habitable rooms of the house as gallant and eccentric, instead of sordid. He mentions, but does not deal with, his own emotional issues: small resentments as he is constantly reminded of his “place”; worry over the upcoming National Service and what it will mean for his practice; shame over the way he treated his parents. Early in the book Mrs. Ayres gives Faraday a photograph. It is an old family photo, with a woman in a maid’s uniform, who is probably Faraday’s mother. The gift is a kindness, but it is also a message, one that Faraday never quite deciphers, although we do.

The thing that infests Hundreds is angry and ravenous, and it slowly devours every scrap of joy or hope before it begins to feast on the physical lives of the inhabitants. Faraday, uniquely qualified to see what is really happening, never does, not even at the end of the book. The line between the material demands of a huge, crumbling building and the danger of a supernatural hunger is fine but not blurry. Waters knows exactly when to step over it.

This is a book that sits with you after you’ve finished it, not unlike the haunting entity itself. Once you’ve closed the cover, you’ll think back to the timing of certain things, and scenes that were merely frightening at the time become horrifying in retrospect. That’s what Waters wants to have happen, and she makes it happen perfectly.

From the multi-award-winning and bestselling author of The Night Watch and Fingersmith comes an astonishing novel about love, loss, and the sometimes unbearable weight of the past. In a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to see a patient at lonely Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the once grand house is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its garden choked with weeds. All around, the world is changing, and the family is struggling to adjust to a society with new values and rules. Roddie Ayres, who returned from World War II physically and emotionally wounded, is desperate to keep the house and what remains of the estate together for the sake of his mother and his sister, Caroline. Mrs. Ayres is doing her best to hold on to the gracious habits of a gentler era and Caroline seems cheerfully prepared to continue doing the work a team of servants once handled, even if it means having little chance for a life of her own beyond Hundreds. But as Dr. Faraday becomes increasingly entwined in the Ayreses’ lives, signs of a more disturbing nature start to emerge, both within the family and in Hundreds Hall itself. And Faraday begins to wonder if they are all threatened by something more sinister than a dying way of life, something that could subsume them completely. Both a nuanced evocation of 1940s England and the most chill-inducing novel of psychological suspense in years, The Little Stranger confirms Sarah Waters as one of the finest and most exciting novelists writing today.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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