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The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

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The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

I very much enjoyed Sarah Waters earlier book Night Watch so I picked up her new novel, The Little Stranger, to read recently. I was immediately drawn into the post World War II life of the Ayers family. The Ayers are gentry, landholders, and the owners of Hundred Hall, the family estate. But things are not what they were before the war. The Ayers are selling off land and struggling to keep their home.

The family is Mrs. Ayers and her two adult children Roderick and Caroline. Roderick, home from the war, suffering both physical and mental wounds from which he has not completely recovered. Caroline, who is happiest tromping about the woods with her dog, Gyp. Into this family comes Dr. Faraday.

Dr. Faraday is called in to care for Roderick who might, perhaps, respond to an experimental electrical stimulation to his wounds. It is the first time since he was a boy that Dr. Faraday has entered Hundreds Hall. When he was a young boy Dr. Faraday was taken to Hundreds Hall by his mother, who had been a nursery maid there before her marriage. He was drawn with wonder to the house as a boy and he feels that wonder still.

To return to Hundreds Hall is a delight to Dr. Faraday, he loves the old house in spite of the ruin into which it is falling. The Ayers are rather isolated at Hundreds Hall and Faraday becomes a sort of friend, although none of them ignore the difference in social class. The gentry may be having a hard time keeping it all together but they are still the gentry. Dr. Faraday may well be a doctor but he came out of the working classes. But, simply by convenience and familiarity, Dr. Faraday becomes a sort of friend of the family. When a tragedy strikes it is Faraday who comes to help the family, and when Roderick’s fragile mental state weakens it is Faraday who arranges for him to go into a hospital for the mentally ill. Roderick, who has had the responsibility of keeping the farm that supports Hundreds Hall operating, but sees only that “since the war (he) has had to watch his property and income vanishing like so much smoke” while “grubby little businessmen are doing all right, men without land, without family, without the eyes of the country on them”. It is these men who are buying up bits of the Ayers land and building housing estates for the new middle class.

After the removal of Roderick strange things continue to plague the residents of Hundreds Hall – odd occurrences that we might have imagined were simply Roderick’s neuroses. By this point in the novel I am getting the sneaking suspicion that this might be a ghost story – a haunted house story. I will say that I would never have purposely read a ghost story – but I was far enough into this novel that I was hooked – and I was uncertain if there was in fact something haunting this house and family, or if it was simply their own obsessions. There was the death of a child in the past – could that be the meaning of the title? There is also a young maid – is she a threat to the family? Who do we suspect, if anyone, of making this house appear to be haunted? 

Eventually we wonder if they will all go mad. When Faraday consults with an older doctor, he is told “Is it so surprising with things for that family so bleak. The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners, after all. Imagine something loosening itself from one of those corners. Let’s call it a - a germ. And let’s say conditions prove right for the germs to develop – to grow, like a child in the womb? What would this little stranger grow into?”

I have to say that Sarah Waters does a great job of writing a gripping tale that would be satisfying to those who are willing to believe in haunted house – and those of us who have our doubts about such things.


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