A week ago, I finished reading Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, one of her lesser known books. Sarah Waters is better known for Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith and The Night Watch, amongst other much loved books. The Little Stranger is set in a post-war Warwickshire, in a crumbling, dilapidated mansion called Hundreds Hall. This is where the Ayreses live – an upper class family used to the glamour and finery of privilege, and struggling to cope with the sparseness and lack of post-war Britain. When a village doctor, Dr Faraday, becomes involved with the family, he becomes caught up in the strange, and finally chilling events that unfold.
I was initially interested in this book because I like a good supernatural/ghost story. Since I haven’t read a Sarah Waters book before, I found this an interesting introduction to the critically acclaimed writer. The novel is written in first person, via the eyes and thoughts of Dr Faraday, who is a man of science and medicine. He is not prone to flights of fancy or imagination, and this down to earth, blustering narrative is in stark relief to the uncertainty and unseen forces or energy at work in the dilapidated Georgian mansion. His disbelief and explaining away of the subsequent events mean that there is an edge of hard fear to the events unfolding. When his involvement becomes deeper and he develops a stronger relationship to the family, he begins to feel that uncertainty, whilst maintaining an air of disbelief and common-sense, reassuring the people in the house that nothing sinister is afoot.
The narrative is effective, drawing you in, a deluded veneer of safety with the Doctor’s certainty that there is all a rational explanation for the events at Hundreds. I found it difficult to relate to him as a character, and at times found his stubborn rationality annoying, wanting to see what was happening with the other characters, what the actual events were like, rather than reading it second hand from him. Yet I feel that Sarah Waters’ aim was to show these events from the eyes of someone unexpected, someone we trust to tell the truth, even when that character is hiding from the truth themselves. On one hand, I wanted there to be a safe, understandable explanation, but there was definitely something happening in the mansion, and Faraday’s choice to explain away ultimately leads to something devastating, to himself personally and the Ayres family.
For a novel that some feel lacks the brilliance of her other novels, I found The Little Stranger a book to admire – though it isn’t one of my new favourites, it is a novel worth reading.
And perhaps there is a limit to the grieving that the human heart can do. As when one adds salt to a tumbler of water, there comes a point where simply no more will be absorbed. – Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger.