Creepy. Unsettling. Strange (not surprisingly). I’m left a bit confused as to how to explain The Little Stranger. This is a superbly written book suffering from a slight defect in urgency – though whether this is in fact a deficit is debatable – this tale takes its time and has a slow pace in the beginning, which gradually becomes more obviously well-suited to the story, but in the first third of the book there is a danger of falling into a torpor.
The Little Stranger is set in an upper class but rapidly decaying home – Hundreds Hall – following WW2, and the story is told by Dr Faraday – a local “lad made good” who remembers visiting Hundreds as a child and whose mother worked there as a nursery maid. Gradually it becomes clear that all is not well at Hundreds Hall, inhabited only by Mrs Ayres and her son Roderick and daughter Caroline, and a young teenage maid, with strange happenings seeming to indicate a malevolent force at work.
There are larger issues here, playing out within a domestic setting – the loss of wealth and status and the general aimlessness of the upper classes after WW2. Roderick, injured in the service of the country, has little to do but obsess over the state of his “estate” – and littler money to do it with. Caroline is a spinster, almost nostalgic for the war that gave her life a purpose and meaning beyond marriage.
Waters’ amazing technique with writing is on total show here – her ability to inhabit the voices of her characters is skilful and as equally creepy as the events they contend with. There is no jarring note here, no moment of anachronism. Their voices are fully formed and genuine and one feels total submersion in the time and story of the novel. Haunting and haunted, the voices of ghosts and a time past. Perfect for the tale being told.
The unsettled atmosphere increases as the story moves on, gradually drawing you in and eventually becoming gripping, with moments of genuine spookiness. Waters holds back from explanation and outright description though, intensifying the creepiness by lack of detail about what exactly we are dealing with here. The reader is never allowed a complete grip on events, an ambiguity that is slightly maddening but also means we never stray into well-worn territory of “horror”.
Who is The Little Stranger, is it really a ghost or is it the character of Dr Faraday himself? In the end it’s almost as if the only person who doesn’t want to give up the “gentrified” Hundreds Hall is the one person who also resents its presence – Faraday. There is a love story here, ostensibly between Faraday and Caroline – but in the end I was left wondering if Faraday’s true love is not in fact Hundreds itself, rather than any of its inhabitants.
Which, I think, is exactly where Waters wanted me, as a reader, to be.
3 little furry black BookieMonster Kitteh paws up. I didn’t find this as completely satisfying as other Waters’ books (notably Fingersmith and Affinity), but its patient skill cannot be overlooked.