Friday, October 23, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Title: The Little Stranger
Author: Sarah Waters
Publisher: Riverhead
Year: 2009
Reason for reading: RIP IV Challenge

First line: "I first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old."

The Little Stranger is a deliciously spooky book that kept me reading into the wee hours of the morning ... with all the lights on, of course! The story opens with Dr. Faraday remembering his first visit to Hundreds Hall in 1919 when he was ten years old. His mother worked as a parlor maid for the Ayres family at the time, and young Faraday was quite taken with the house. Thirty years later Dr. Faraday, a bachelor, is called to Hundreds Hall to treat a servant. He becomes obsessed with both the house and the elegant Mrs. Ayres and her two grown children: Roderick, an RAF airman wounded during WWII and Caroline, a spinster who Dr. Faraday is both attracted to and repulsed by at different times.

Faraday becomes a regular visitor at Hundreds Hall despite the class differences between himself and the Ayres family. The British class system is fading and times are difficult for those who previously earned income from their estates. Many of the landed are selling their properties outright; but not the Ayres. The Ayres choose to dissect their property to developers bit by bit. The Ayres family try to maintain their status as landed gentry even though it is clearly taking a toll on the health of Roderick who oversees the estate. Hundreds Hall is in a state of severe decay and it quickly becomes apparent that the Ayres family is also disintegrating as odd behaviors begin to display. I don't want to give away too much, but in Gothic tradition there are eerie and unexplained events, violence, madness and suicide.

That there is malevolence afoot can not be denied, but it is not clear whether the malevolence is of supernatural or human origin. Is the house itself malicious? Is it inhabited by ghosts and poltergeists? Or is the psychological decay of the family creating an atmosphere and energy that result in horror? [SPOILER ALERT] For those who like tidy endings, these questions might be a sticking point as it is never entirely clear what caused the "madness" at Hundreds Hall. [END SPOILER ALERT]

The Little Stranger is my first book by Sarah Waters, so I cannot compare it with her previous work. I do think that this book has similarities to some of Shirley Jackson's work. I recently read We Have Always Lived in the Castle and [JACKSON SPOILER ALERT] like Waters, Jackson used the psychological deterioration of her characters to create a disturbing and chilling atmosphere. [END SPOILER ALERT]

I've heard that one of Waters strengths is her historical settings. I think she has done a marvelous job with The Little Stranger placing the reader in post-WWII England circa 1949. There were times that I forgot I was reading a contemporary novel.

Highly recommended.

Also reviewed at:
an adventure in reading
Fizzy Thoughts


  1. I'm skipping this review since I haven't gotten to this Waters yet, but I was happy to see you in my reader again! :)

  2. Eva: I look forward to your comments after you read it and am curious what you think of it in comparison to her other work. Also curious if you see the "Shirley Jackson" aspects! I was glad to finally write something; work has been interfering with my reading and blogging ;o)

  3. It's always so interesting to me how two people can feel so differently about the same book. I just read a review of this one where the reader felt very let-down. I was thinking I might skip it and read Night Watch next but you've got me thinking twice!

  4. I have read so many positive reviews of this book.Liked The Night Watch; she does have a wonderful way with setting!One more for the list...

  5. I thought this book was OK, but I don't think I liked it as much as you did. I agree with you about the unexplained events in the book, but I don't really mind ambiguity.

    Have you read the last line of the book very carefully? That will explain a bit more I think.

  6. I skipped the spoiler parts as I really want to read this one. Thanks for the review.

  7. I read the spoiler bits but still want to read the book. Thanks for the great review!

  8. I really want to read this. I loved her 3 Victorian novels and need to make time to read this one and The Night Watch. There's never enough time to read all the books we want, is there?