I have never read anything written by Sarah Waters before. I had no expectations going into this book. The art teacher at my school said I would like it, and that the last page was a doozy. If what I think happened is what happened, then she’s right.
The Little Stranger is the story of Dr. Faraday and his long-standing obsession with Hundreds Hall, the home of the Ayres family. He first encounters the family as a small child when he visits the estate as part of an Empire Day celebration. Taken with the charm of the house, its grandness, its stateliness, he prizes a small acorn decoration from a plaster border in one of the passages in the house. The next time Dr. Faraday enters the house about thirty years later, it is to treat the Ayres family’s maid Betty. Dr. Faraday gradually becomes closer to the Ayres family and even becomes indispensable. Strange things start to happen around the house: a girl is badly bitten by the otherwise docile Gyp, the Ayres family dog. Strange marks begin to appear on the walls and ceilings. Objects move. Is it the ghost of poor little Susan Ayres who died before her younger sister and brother were born? Or is it something even stranger and more mysterious?
The book is as much a gothic ghost story as it is the story of the waning of the British class system, perfectly encapsulated by Mrs. Ayres as quoted by her daughter, “She said families like ours, they had a—a responsibility, they had to set an example. She said, if we couldn’t do that, if we couldn’t be better and braver than ordinary people, then what was the point of us?” In the post-WWII setting of the novel, many of the old gentry like the Ayres family are rapidly losing their money and are unable to keep up their grand estates. Course, nouveau-riche families like the Baker-Hydes are moving into the nearby estates. Keeping Hundreds Hall going occupies all of Roderick Ayres’s time (nice touch with the literary allusion in that name). Meanwhile, Dr. Faraday has risen from a humble background as the son of a shopkeeper and former Hundreds Hall servant to become a doctor. Even as the last vestiges of the class system seem to be dying away, some parts of it hang on with a frustrating tenacity that prevents Faraday from truly advancing in the ways he hopes to.
This book has some genuinely creepy parts. I was a little spooked reading it at night. One portion late in the book concerning the haunting of Mrs. Ayres was actually scary. Readers who like a definitive ending instead of one you have to mull over and determine what you think happened—because Waters does leave it up to your interpretation—might not enjoy this book. It is slow to start, but parts of it are gripping and will keep you turning the pages. I am knocking off a star for the plodding pace in portions of this book and the fact that I didn’t like the characters very much (with perhaps the exceptions of Betty and Mrs. Ayres). It’s been a long time since I read a really good ghost story, and I enjoyed this book a great deal. I know I’ve enjoyed a book when I close it and wish I could write one like it. If you enjoy spooky ghost stories like The Turn of the Screw, Rebecca, and The Ghost Writer by John Harwood, you’ll like this book. I’ve read it is also a cousin of The Haunting of Hill House, but I haven’t read that one yet.
This book is my seventh book in the Typically British Reading Challenge. One more book and I will meet the challenge’s highest level: Cream Crackered.