Cloaked in atmosphere, as any historical novel should be, “The little stranger” by Sarah Waters lived up to it’s stellar reputation. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize it is more than a ghost story — more than a historical novel, it is a literary work of merit. The best-selling novelist Stephen King is quoted on the back cover as saying “The best book I read this year”.
I sheepishly admit that the cover was what attracted me to the novel at first.
Set in post-war England, a time of shortages and managing with little, a time of both psychological and literal recovery from the devastation of WWII.
The novel features as protagonist, a single, middle-aged doctor in rural Warwickshire.
Set during a time when making house calls was the norm for a family physician, Dr. Faraday is called out to the local manor house, Hundreds Hall. Once the showplace of the village, it is now neglected and dilapidated. The family that have lived there for centuries have fallen on hard times and their once plentiful servants have dwindled to a live-in house-maid and a daily woman.
It is to the house-maid that the doctor is called. When he arrives he finds that there is nothing really wrong physically with the girl, but she tells him she is uncomfortable living in the big house and wants to leave her employ there. He reprimands her, but keeps her secret as long as she remains at her post. Following this house call, Dr. Faraday becomes acquainted with the other members of the household. The dignified and elegant mother, Mrs. Ayres, her son Roderick who was injured in the war and now runs the family’s farm as well as tends to the family’s finances, and the daughter, Caroline… plain and without airs, whose life is a constant struggle, yet seems to be the glue that keeps the family together.
Enmeshed in the affairs of the family over time, Dr. Faraday is witness to the family’s increasing misfortune. Roderick seems to think that there is a malevolent force in the house who means him ill. Dr. Faraday, a man of science, believes Roderick to be under extreme stress and not fully recovered from his time serving his country.
“The little stranger” is set in a time when there was a distinct and impassable divide between the social classes and Sarah Waters aptly describes the social mores and customs of the time period. Her physical description of Hundreds Hall and the people who inhabit it transport the reader with it’s ambiance. Hundreds Hall is such a huge part of the plot that it is almost like a character in it’s own right. Anyone who likes a ‘haunted house’ story will enjoy this novel, though calling it a haunted house story does it an injustice. Not frightening, but insidious in it’s eeriness, it will keep you turning pages with some trepidation. That being said, the novel is not recommended for those frustrated by ambiguity…
Sarah Waters was born in Wales in 1966.
Waters attended university, earning degrees in English literature. Before writing novels Waters worked as an academic, earning a doctorate and teaching. Waters went directly from her doctoral thesis to her first novel. It was during the process of writing her thesis that she thought she would write a novel; she began as soon as the thesis was complete. She has written six novels: Tipping the Velvet (1998), which won the Betty Trask Award; Affinity (1999), which won the Somerset Maugham Award, the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Mail on Sunday / John Llewellyn Rhys Prize; Fingersmith (2002), which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize, and won the South Bank Show Award for Literature and the CWA Historical Dagger; The Night Watch (2006), which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the Man Booker Prize; The Little Stranger (2009), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the South Bank Show Literature Award; and The Paying Guests (2014) which was been shortlisted for The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and was published in paperback in June 2015.