Meeting my gaze she said, as if in honest surrender, 'You're right. Hundreds is lovely. But it's a sort of lovely monster! It needs to be fed all the time, with money and hard work. And when one feels them' - she nodded to the row of sombre portraits - 'at one's shoulder, looking on, it can begin to seem like a frightful burden...
Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger departs from her previous novels that are mostly set in Victorian Britain. First of all, unlike her previous novels, this one does not have any lesbian characters, nor does it focus on sexuality as such. The main character is a country doctor, Faraday, a middle-aged man who has rather pessimistic ideas about his personal future. Secondly, the novel is set as late as the 1940s, in the rapidly modernizing rural district of Warwickshire in post-war England. And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the genre of the novel seems to lean towards a ghost story - complete with an old, haunted mansion - Hundreds Hall - as the primary setting.
I am no expert on ghost stories or gothic fiction, but The Little Stranger strikes me as a very traditional example of the conventions of this genre. In many ways, it is almost disappointingly predictable. The story unfolds very slowly at first; so slowly, in fact, that I think some readers will feel frustrated because "nothing really happens".
Dr. Faraday is called to Hundreds Hall to see a young patient there. He meets and becomes friends with the somewhat eccentric inhabitants: the old, upper-class Ayres family - a mother, son and daughter - who struggle to survive in the decrepit building with their meagre funds. Strange events soon begin to take place at Hundreds. Is the house haunted or are its inhabitants just imagining things?
Despite the gradually increasing tension and the menacing feeling of uncanniness, the rational narration of Dr. Faraday continues to dominate the story. At first, he seems to mirror the reader's scepticism in asserting that ghosts do not and cannot exist. But somehow his frustratingly logical explanations for all that occurs and his determined refusal to believe in anything unscientific or supernatural gradually turned me against him. Sarah Waters cunningly tells the tale so that we are subtly encouraged to dismiss Dr. Faraday as the authoritative voice of reason and increasingly rely on our own judgement.
The bottom line is that this novel is about more than just ghosts and haunted houses; it's about the social changes that were going on in Britain at the time. The old families are losing their land and houses and can no longer rely on their family heirloom. The heyday of aristocracy is over, and the middle classes are beginning to emerge. The 'Ayres' family are indeed 'heirs' to an older, more traditional, class-based society, but as class divisions crumble, the upper classes begin to lose their wealth and privileges.
The Little Stranger is still very much a Sarah Waters novel. Like her other novels, this was one of those books that was difficult to put down before I had finished it. I can't really pinpoint the reason for this, since the actual story was very slow-paced and leisurely. This isn't a horror story that will make you jump at ghosts that appear from behind every corner, but it is one that will make you think, especially after the ambiguous ending...
The Little Stranger was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2009. Film rights in the book have also been optioned.
Sarah Waters: The Little Stranger. Virago. 2009. 501 pages.
The Guardian: "Haunted by Shame"
The Man Booker Prize: The Little Stranger
Wikipedia: The Little Stranger