This is the third Sarah Waters book I’ve read this year, the other two being Affinity and Fingersmith, and I think this one is my favourite. I seem to be in the minority though, as I’ve seen some very mixed reviews of this book.
The Little Stranger is set in Warwickshire just after the end of World War II. When Dr Faraday is called to Hundreds Hall, home of the Ayres family, to treat their young maid, he can’t help noticing that the house has deteriorated since he was last there as a boy. Striking up a friendship with Mrs Ayres and her daughter Caroline, Dr Faraday begins to spend more and more time at Hundreds – and becomes involved in a series of increasingly strange and terrifying events.
This is a typical haunted house story, yet it was psychologically fascinating, very suspenseful – and genuinely spooky. I always find poltergeist-type phenomena very disturbing to read about and there’s plenty of that in this book, from moving furniture and inexplicable fires, to tapping noises, ringing telephones and mysterious handwriting that appears on the walls. I had to avoid reading this book late at night because I knew it would scare me if I did!
I have said before that I think one area where Sarah Waters really excels is in creating believable and vivid settings for her stories. She has done this to perfection in the two Victorian novels that I’ve read, and does it again here with her portrayal of life in post-war Britain – the class system, the economy, housing, medical care and the introduction of the NHS.
Another thing I loved about this book is that it’s not immediately obvious what’s going on, which allows the reader to be a detective. Is Hundreds Hall really haunted? Is there a rational explanation for the supernatural occurrences? Or is someone playing a cruel trick? And if it is a trick, who is responsible for it? I think I suspected every character at some point in the novel! Then there’s Hundreds itself, which is almost a character in its own right – perhaps the most important ‘character’ in the book. It seems to be symbolic that as the house falls further into neglect and disrepair, the Ayres family themselves begin to fall apart one by one.
I was hoping that by the end of the story everything would become clear. However, after finishing the book I am still no closer to knowing exactly what had happened at Hundreds than I was at the beginning. The final few chapters of the book are very ambiguous and leave the story open to interpretation. It was slightly frustrating not to be given all the answers, but in the end it didn’t really matter because the story was wonderful anyway – and even a few days later I’m still thinking about it and wondering whether I’ve interpreted things correctly.
Unless you really don’t like ghost stories, I would recommend The Little Stranger as a great, spooky read, perfect for the RIP challenge or for Halloween.