Dr Faraday, a lonely, unmarried, middle-aged, country GP becomes involved with the family up at crumbling Hundreds Hall where his mother once worked as a servant. This house impressed him deeply when he was a little boy, but since then the family has diminished into genteel poverty – the household now consisting of flighty Mrs Ayres, her plain, spinster daughter, Caroline, her injured war veteran son, Roddy (who has had some kind of nervous breakdown in the recent past) and a couple of servants. As Faraday allows himself to become emotionally entangled with this family, mysterious and increasingly terrifying occurrences begin to plague their lives at Hundreds Hall.
I got the impression that lesbian readers were divided by The Little Stranger into ‘loved it’ and ‘indifferent to it’ camps. This is not very surprising since it’s the first of Waters’s novels not to feature a lesbian relationship, or a self-identified lesbian character. The style of writing builds on Affinity and The Night Watch, becoming even more understated, cool and precise, and even more of a slow-burn than those novels. So if you prefer the fast-paced romping style of Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, The Little Stranger may disappoint.
I absolutely loved it though, reading most of it during one train journey to Manchester and finishing it on the way back. But my enjoyment may have less to do with loyalty to Waters than the fact that I love the kind of Gothic writing she draws on in this novel, the ‘really about what haunts society’ tradition of ghost stories. The cool, but terrifying, ghost stories of M.R. James are clearly an influence here, as well as Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. I don’t know if she’s read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, but that feels like an American cousin of The Little Stranger.
The ghost haunting The Little Stranger is the ghost of class resentment, the trauma of war and the post-war shift in the position of women. You may find the strange, ambiguous (as well as very sad) ending frustrating if you like things tied up, but I enjoy that sort of thing, and it goes with the territory in the kind of tradition Waters is writing in.
Also, it’s the first Sarah Waters novel that I could allow my mother to read.