by Sarah Waters
One post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, Dr. Faraday is called to a patient at lonely Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the Georgian house, once impressive and handsome, is now in decline. Its owners-mother, son, and daughter-are struggling to keep pace with a changing society, as well as with conflicts of their own. But are the Ayreses haunted by something more sinister than a dying way of life? Little does Dr. Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become intimately entwined with his.
After I read Fingersmith (reviewed here!) I had a craving for two things: 1) more historical fiction, a genre I feel as though I haven't read much of this year, and 2) more Sarah Waters. I own four of Waters' novels - Affinity, Fingersmith, The Night Watch and The Little Stranger - and, having already read Affinity and Fingersmith, the book that most called to me was The Little Stranger. I couldn't remember the last time I read a ghost story, possibly last year when I read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and as autumn draws closer I was in the mood to get started on my Halloween reading.
The Little Stranger is a ghost story, but it isn't the kind of story that goes 'boo!' or frightens you with jump scares, it's psychological. So psychological, in fact, that it isn't always clear if there really is a haunting or if the family who live at Hundreds Hall, the Ayreses, are just the unfortunate victims of coincidence and mental illness.
Our protagonist is the middle-aged bachelor Dr. Faraday who finds himself slowly being pulled into the lives of the Ayres family at Hundreds Hall. Once a beautiful stately home, the Hall is falling into disrepair, as is the Ayres' way of life; the Second World War is over, and coming from a high class family no longer means what it used to. All that's left of the Ayres family are Mrs. Ayres and her two grown children, Caroline and Roderick. Roderick has been left scarred by the war and is struggling to keep the estate running, while the outgoing Caroline has returned from a life in the Wrens, which she loved, to help her mother and brother cope.
I feel as though I can't say too much about The Little Stranger without spoiling it. Not because it's particularly shocking - compared to the previous two Waters' books I've read, the storyline of The Little Stranger is fairly straightforward - but there's something about the atmosphere of this book that means it has to be felt. This is a superb ghost story, and I'm not at all ashamed to say that it gave me the heebie jeebies. One night I genuinely considered keeping my light on when I went to bed. Though I am a massive wuss.
I felt just as invested in the Ayres family as Dr. Faraday. It would have been so easy for the Ayreses to be a stereotypical ghost story family, but Waters once again succeeded in writing people rather than characters, and I fell in love with all three of them. I loved Caroline in particular, so much so that there were times when I wished she was the protagonist, but I could understand why she wasn't; with a story like this, you need a protagonist who is an outsider, and Faraday is certainly that.
It was due to Faraday that I wasn't sure how to rate this book at first. As the book went on I began to dislike him more and more, and I wasn't sure I could give a book five stars when I didn't like the main character, but the more I thought about it the more I realised how important that was. By the end of the story I'm not sure that Faraday is supposed to be likeable, or that whether or not the protagonist is likeable is important to a story like this one. As a ghost story, this book is one of the best I've ever read, so how could I not give it five stars?
Waters seamlessly includes detail in her narrative without ever bogging the story down, and I loved the way she tipped her hat to some of her influences, from Charles Dickens' Great Expectations to Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca to Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher.
Stunning novel. I highly recommend it!