In a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to a patient at Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the Georgian house, once grand and handsome, is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, the clock in its stable yard permanently fixed at twenty to nine. 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 entwined with his.
I have been steadily reading my way through Sarah Waters’s backlist after discovering her a year or so ago with the brilliant, unputdownable Affinity. She’s one of those writers that always makes me sigh and wish that I could write as well.
The three books of hers that I have read to date are all set during the Victorian era. The Little Stranger, however, is set in the difficult years after World War II, when the known world has been shaken loose from its moorings. Its topography is familiar to me from dozens of books by Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers and Patricia Wentworth. Even though The Little Stranger is not a who-dunnit by any means, it shares a great deal with books by these classic crime writers – a grand English country house, class snobbery, mysteries and misdirection, unexpected twists, and a series of unexplained deaths and tragedies.
The Little Stranger also differs from Sarah Water’s earlier books by having a male narrator. Dr Faraday is the local doctor who finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into affairs at Hundreds House. It soon becomes clear that he is a not-entirely-reliable narrator, which really heightens the tension and suspense, and reminded me of Agatha Christie’s great masterpiece Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? It also reminded me of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca in the way the slowly building suspense becomes almost unbearable.
Yet The Little Stranger is at heart a creepy Gothic ghost story, with a malevolent poltergeist driving the inhabitants towards the house towards the book’s grand tragic finale.
Or is it?
Is the ghost real? Is it a strange kind of madness? A manifestation of intense psychic distress? Or is it a kind of malicious manipulation by someone in the house? Perhaps even the doctor himself?
This mystery and ambiguity is part of the genius of The Little Stranger. Since I finished reading it, I’ve discussed it with dozens of people who all believe something different. I think it is just brilliant.