Waters, Sarah

Review: “The Little Stranger” by Sarah Waters [2009]

As usual, I’ve come late to the party of popular books. This Booker short-listed title is a strange and creepy Gothic story set in England in the years after the second World War. This period is one of transience – where century old social customs, hierarchies and grand family estates that have been in families for generations are crumbling down everywhere.

The Little Stranger is narrated by Dr. Faraday, the only son of a maid and grocer whose parents have invested all their energies and money into their son’s education so to give him the chance to rise up in the world. Faraday’s mother, once a nursery maid at the majestic mansion called Hundreds Hall, first takes Faraday to the mansion as a boy and who later returns as a middle-aged bachelor (this point is strongly emphasised). Called to the hall one day to look over the Hundreds Hall only maid, a fourteen year-old girl named Betty, Faraday is shocked to see the mansion in such disarray. Half the mansion has been closed off, a lot of the estate’s land has been sold off to developers for Council houses and the Ayres family seem to live in constant poverty. The remaining occupants of the Hundreds are Mrs. Ayres, who is nostalgic for the old days, and her two grown children, Caroline and Roderick, who is physically and mentally scarred by war. As the ‘master’ of the house, Roderick does whatever he can to save the crumbling estate.

As Faraday becomes more involved with the Ayres family and the sorry state of the house, strange things begin to happen. After a little girl is bitten on the face by the Ayres’ usually gentle and goofy dog at a party one night, Betty is convinced that there is something unnatural in the house:

‘There’s a bad thing in the this house, that’s what! There’s a bad thing, and he makes wicked things happen!’

I stared at her for a moment, then lifted my hand, to rub my face. ‘Oh, Betty.’

‘It’s true! I’ve felt ‘m! … It wasn’t an accident! It were the bad thing, whispering to Gyp, or — or nipping him.’ – p. 130

Other strange and unexplainable things begin to occur that suggests that Betty may be right and that there is something in Hundreds Hall. Queer scorch marks are found under the paint in Roderick’s room, phones begin to ring in the middle of the night even though the telephone exchange has no record of anybody ever calling the Hall and strange, incessant noises lead them to bizarre childish handwriting on walls. While there are creepy elements to The Little Stranger, it is not essentially a ghost story but rather an exploration of the quickly disappearing social classes, their wealth and sweeping new modern reforms such as the Health Service and affordable housing for all.

While I did enjoy Little Stranger, I was expecting more of a ghost story and was slightly disappointed it wasn’t more so. The creepy parts were really quite frightening even though the ‘stranger’, whatever was in that house, is never identified as anything more than a dark blur at the corner of the eye and as a ‘he’ by Betty. Other reviews have compared similarities to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, where the fear and creepiness comes from what you’ve imagined yourself, and I have to agree. Dr. Faraday got on my nerves more than a few times by his sheer inability to open his mind and his stuffy attitude towards everything. I did wonder though, how easily accepting readers are (or at least I was) to the supernatural aspects rather than the rational. While there was no concrete proof of a ghost, I was more ready to believe the Ayres’ stories than Dr. Faraday’s explanations. The book was a tad too long and I thought some parts were sloppily edited. It could have easily been shorter.