This post was edited and republished into my blog’s timeline in its original place from my lost posts archives.
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
This made a great choice for a book group (as long as you have the time to read it’s 500+ pages), because we all had differing ideas on the mystery that lies behind this Gothic tale of a crumbling pile and the family that seems to be decaying with the house too. For the few of you who haven’t read this novel already, I shall set the scene:
The story of Hundreds Hall and its owners, the Ayres family, is told by Dr Faraday, who first encountered the hall when his mother, who was a nurserymaid there, took him to work one day. Now after the war, Faraday lives a single life as a country doctor in the same village, but until an emergency call comes from the hall when their usual doctor is unavailable, he has had no reason to return to the house that so caught his imagination as a boy. There he meets Mrs Ayres, her son Roderick, who was wounded in the war, and daughter Caroline, a sturdy sort never without her dog Gyp. He is called to see the maid Betty, who has had a funny turn thinking there’s something wrong with the house; she feigns illness, and Faraday colludes with her to promote a quick ‘recovery’. This visit is to be the first of many, and the Doctor begins to find himself indispensible to the family, and even taken into their confidence. Then one day at a party, the dog, Gyp bites the daughter of the Ayres’ neighbours, and this is the real start of a sequence of events that will test the family and their doctor to the limit.
How different this was from my other recent WWII Country House read (The Novel in the Viola, see here). There were similarities – the decaying country house hanging on with a vastly reduced staff, and families torn apart by war, but whereas in Viola love wins making for a cheering read, in The Little Stranger, love becomes warped and even obsessive resulting in a real sense of unease. As one disaster follows another, you’re never sure who or what is behind them, and even the ending leaves you to make your own mind up – our group found that we’d read it in several different ways which made for a great discussion.
The house itself was also a strong character in the book – gradually decaying, not having enough staff to run it, the family not having enough income having had to sell some of their farms to maintain it – indeed they live in what could only be described as genteel poverty. One of our group found the air of decay of the house in this book to be more distressing than the events – having to pin the peeling wallpaper back up with drawing pins that then rusted and so on.
At the heart of the novel though is class division. Despite his parents having struggled to get him an education, Dr Faraday can never be the same class as the Ayres, but that doesn’t stop him trying to become more than just the family doctor. He has a chip on his shoulder, and despite knowing he would never be able to have Hundreds Hall, he becomes determined to inhabit it as much as he can, through being there for the family.
To elucidate further would risk spoiling, but for some more excellent discussions about this book, do read: Stuck in a Book and Shelf Love. Despite being a long book and being slightly slow-burning at the start, The Little Stranger evolved into a compelling read, full of the great descriptive writing and well-developed characters that Waters is famed for, but remaining accessible and enjoyable throughout. (8.5/10)
Source: Own copy.
Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger (Virago, 2009) paperback, 512 pages.