The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Riverhead Books, New York, 2009

Borrowed from the library.  This book was on the short list for the 2009 Man Booker prize.

This is my second Sarah Waters novel.  It is very much a ghost story, dark and dense with atmosphere, the type of writing Waters excels at.

In 1940’s England Dr. Faraday, the son of a maid, is called to Hundreds Hall, a fine old manor in the countryside. But the Doctor finds the residence of the Ayres family is falling into disrepair.

The story ran on, Caroline and Roderick prompting more of it;  they spoke to each other rather than to me, and, shut out of the game, I looked from mother to daughter to son and finally caught the likenesses between them, not just the similarities of feature-the long limbs, the high set eyes-but the almost clannish little tricks of gesture and speech.  And I felt a flicker of impatience with them-the faintest stirring of a dark dislike-and my pleasure at the lovely room was slightly spoiled.  Perhaps it was the peasant blood in me, rising.  But Hundred Hall had been made and maintained, I thought, by the very people they were laughing at now.  After two hundred years, those people had begun to withdraw their labour, their belief in the house; and the house was collapsing like a pyramid of cards.  Meanwhile, here the family sat, playing gaily at gentry life, with the chipped stucco on their walls, and their Turkey carpets worn to the weave, and their riveted china…from page 25.

Mrs. Ayres, daughter Caroline, and son Roderick are losing control of the land and the house around them.  Roderick, wounded in the war, is trying to manage the house and the farm, and with his failing health, is not doing too well.  Or is it more than his health that is causing this failure?  As the tension builds within this family and within this house,  unexplained things begin to happen.  Dr. Faraday finds himself deeply involved with an outcome he couldn’t possible have expected.  As with Fingersmith it is hard to say more without giving too much away.

In many ways the novel’s tension reminds me of  The Turn of the Screw by Henry James but the time period and the war add a disheveled, chaotic element to the story. There is the tension in the traditional ideas of class that are slowly dissolving around these characters, and certain elements of family history that add to the haunted feel of the novel.  The house takes on a life of its own, it begins to feel alive. Waters skill at characterization shines,  her characters are alive, she has uncovered their fears and fantasies.  She is a master at drawing out the intricacies of human thought and emotion, of getting inside her characters heads.

I liked The Little Stranger.  It is a creepy,  chilling tale.  I will read more of Waters’ novels in the future.

Other reviews:

Farm Lane Books

Regular Rumination

Shelf Love

You Gotta Read This

Did you read and review this book?


Filed under Booker, GLBT 2010, Historical Fiction, Review

20 responses to “The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

  1. I enjoyed this too! Sarah Waters is one of my favourite authors – I look forward to reading many more of her books in the future.

    I also recommend the BBC adaptations that you can now get on DVD – they are fantastic!

  2. I look forward to reading this also. Having read two books by Waters now, I have not been disappointed except for reading Fingersmith first, which set such a high bar, I wish I had read it last!

    • Fingersmith does set the bar rather high. I am going to take a break from Waters to put some space between that novel and her other books.

  3. I haven’t read Waters but think that I’ll start with this one because it seems to have disappointed a lot of others who were such fans of her previous novels. I’d like to come into it without any preconceptions. Glad you liked it!

    • Claire – I think it would be good to start with The Little Stranger. I can see how some would be dissappointed, I wasn’t.

  4. This was my first Waters, and I was bowled over by it. I love how she packed so many ideas into it while still telling a frightening story. After this and Fingersmith, she’s fast becoming one of my favorites!

  5. Ti

    I’ve not read any of her work yet but I think I will read Fingersmith first and then if I like her writing style, I will pick this one up.

    I tend to think of The Haunting at Hill House when I read about The Little Stranger and I didn’t care for that one too much.

  6. I know this novel disappointed a lot of people, but I LOVED it! I thought the class & gender implications were totally brilliant – and that ending! So creepy and fascinating.

  7. I loved this book on audio, read by the most wonderful Simon Vance. By the end of it (and what an ending, eh?) I felt like the story was in me, or I was in the story, or something. I was breathing it, and I didn’t want it to end. I have decided that Waters must be one of my favorite authors after having read three of her novels, and intend to read them all!

    • Sandy – What is the other Waters novel you read? I am taking a break from her for a while but will want to pick up another in a few months.

  8. I need to read this one again. It ended, I thought, very ambiguously; I’m wondering if things would be clearer to me on a reread. Sarah Waters, always worth the trouble. :)

    • The ending of The Little Stranger is ambiguous. I’ve seen a lot of discussion about it, but I found it added a great deal to the novel.

  9. I wasn’t as wowed as most people seem to be by this one. But I still love Sarah Waters and will continue to read her books.

  10. ds

    I’ve only read one Waters novel (The Night Watch, pre-blog), but this one is definitely on the list! Will be working backwards through her”canon” I expect!

  11. Hi there! Great review, I want to read this one now. I love a good ghost story!

  12. I fell in love with Sarah Waters’ writing with this book. And then I read The Night Watch and loved it more! And I recently read Affinity and was bowled over again. Waters’ prose is beautiful and evocative and she’s not afraid to play with structure in her novels. Can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.

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