I’m certainly not the first to acknowledge this, but Sarah Waters is a genius. Her writing style is beautiful and her every book is compelling. It’s a unique skill to combine classic prose with such a strong storyline. The Little Stranger is a can’t-put-it-down-page-turner, but unlike many other page-turners, you aren’t left feeling cheated and slightly dirty afterwards because Waters’ writing is as satisfying as the tale.
The Little Stranger weaves an observation on social class into a modern-era gothic novel. It is set in rural post-war England where across the country aristocratic families’ fortunes are in decline.
The story revolves around one aristocratic family in particular: Mrs Ayres, Caroline and Roddy Ayers, their newly acquired GP Doctor Faraday and equally importantly, the crumbling remains of Hundreds Hall. Hundreds Hall, family home of the Ayres for two centuries, occupies centre stage of the novel. Its looming, decaying structure takes up so much literal and metaphysical space in this book it near enough has its own persona.
However, the most interesting thing about this novel is that although it begins as a monocrome vignette of county England, it slowly turns into a gripping and terrifying poltergeist story. Hundreds Hall is haunted and whatever inhabits it is intent on destroying the Ayreses.
The Ayres’ precipitous decline is told to us by Dr Faraday, the classic unreliable narrator. Faraday’s mother was in service at Hundreds Hall when he was a child, and with a lack of self awareness that marks all his observations, doesn’t realise his irregular attachment to those memories. His yearning to escape his working class origins finds an agreeable outlet in his friendship and then romantic links with the Ayreses.
As the poltergeist’s activities increase, the Ayres’ finances deteriorate. The sense of claustrophia deepens as Caroline and Mrs Ayres can barely afford to heat or light the property, reducing their movement to a handful of rooms in the mansion. As the weeds thicken and the building crumbles, the family’s mental and physical health degenerates with it. Faraday’s pragmatism leaves him ill-equipped to cope with the supernatural events.
Much has been written about the novel’s ambiguous ending. For me, there is just the right amount of ambiguity to allow you to form your own conclusions and to gauge for yourself just how much of Faraday’s conscientiousness, joy, puzzlement and grief is real.
That’s why the novel is close to perfect. There’s just the right amount of atmosphere and tension, mixed with observations on class and sex, all rolled into a well-paced story about a haunted house. It’s an excellent choice for the tail-end of winter when the wind is whistling and the windows are rattling.