Sunday, April 19, 2009


A handful of years after the close of World War 2, an Oxfordshire family doctor returns to the manor where his mother once worked as a domestic servant. The Hundreds, as it's known, has fallen into disrepair as Mrs. Ayres, the widow of the Colonel who ran the estate, her son, Roderick, and her daughter, Caroline, have gradually run out of money. Dr. Faraday, eager to be of service to the family and house he grew up revering, befriends the family at the beginning of what is to become the unluckiest year of their lives, as the house is beset by freak accidents and nearly uncanny unfortunate coincidences. As the mess evolves, Dr. Faraday and the Ayreses try to reason it all out--is it just the old house falling apart? Sabotage by a member of the family or a spiteful servant? A poltergeist? Or something much more sinister?

This is Sarah Waters's fifth novel, following the World War 2 ensemble drama The Night Watch, and the Victorian literary romances Affinity, Fingersmith, and Tipping the Velvet (although to describe them as such is humorously reductive). For the first time, however, Waters has chosen not to include any lesbian themes in the novel, which is (one assumes) why The Little Stranger is being billed as "her most accessible to date" (from the press release).

If The Little Stranger broadens Waters's fan base, all the better. The writing is, as always, wholly engrossing and realistic (at times frustratingly so). In my opinion, Waters's most appealing strength lies in her tireless attention to period detail, and her ability to work said detail effortlessly and unobtrusively into plot. In many ways, The Little Stranger is a return to Waters's Affinity momentum--a Gothic novel with a slow-developing, heavily detailed first person narrator and highly deliberate plot, its eerie eye turned toward the supernatural and the supposed supernatural. The effect of The Little Stranger is much like that of Affinity--cumulative; almost gruelingly temperate and mundane throughout the long text; devastating after you've closed the last page and the implications coalesce.

The Little Stranger must have on some level been a deliberate homage to Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca: the awed working-class background narrator hypnotized by the grandeur of a fading estate (like the heroine of Rebecca, Dr. Faraday lacks a first name); the slow, psychological suspense of trying to preserve a way of life that has clearly passed.

My closest recommendation is for people who liked Michael Cox's The Meaning of Night. This is a similar period suspense piece, and a rather rewarding one.


Pamala Knight said...

I'm a big Sarah Waters fan. I've read all of her other works mentioned and agree completely about the masterful way she incorporates those minute details that can sometimes bog down narrative, but which for her, only enrich the storyline.

I haven't yet read this book but I'm on my way to the library and the bookstore today, so once again, instead of writing, I think I'll be reading.

Thanks for the recommendation. *waves*

Cheryl said...

I'm fascinated by your description. Would you say this story is gruesome or gritty at all? I'm drawn to the Gothic aspects and the comparison to Rebecca, but I'm terribly squeamish.

moonrat said...

Cheryl--there's a little tiny bit of gore (Dr Faraday is a country doctor and attends some appendices and inquests etc). I didn't find it notable, although I'm really not very squeamish. I wouldn't describe it as gruesome, but there's definitely, you know, some stuff.

Gayla said...

I just finished it last night. I sort of guessed at the ending, but I thought the last section was very effectively chilling (and the whole last half is pretty creepy, at least to me).

Carolyn said...

I've read about two thirds of The Little Stranger, a compelling read in my opinion. I am wondering about the title of the book. Is it explained by the end of the book?

At the same time I am reading The Little Stranger I am transcribing "Dare's Gift" by Ellen Glasgow, a two part story first published in 1917. There are many similarities - an old house with a history (a James River plantation house with Civil War connections); and the house seems to have a bad effect on residents. The house's history is explained by a doctor narrator in the second part of the story. Another very good read.