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The Little Stranger – Book Review

The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners, after all. Imagine something loosening itself from one of those corners. Let’s call it a – a germ. And let’s say conditions prove right for that germ to develop  – to grow, like a child in the womb. What would this little stranger grow into? A sort of shadow-self perhaps: a Caliban, a Mr. Hyde. A creature motivated by all the nasty impulses and hungers the conscious mind had hoped to keep hidden away: things like envy, and malice, and frustration… – from The Little Stranger, pages 353-354 –

In a small English village in Warwickshire sits a Georgian home called Hundreds Hall. It was once an elegant mansion with beautiful grounds and many servants to keep its rooms flawless. But the war has taken its toll on the people and economy of England, and Hundreds Hall is now in decline with crumbling masonry, weed-choked gardens and leaky ceilings. Dr. Faraday, the local physician, had visited the mansion as a child and his mother was once a maid there, so he is shocked at what the once beautiful home has become when he is called out to see an ailing servant girl. He quickly befriends those still living at Hundreds Hall: the elderly Mrs. Ayres and her two adult children… Roderick (who is crippled from the war), and Caroline. Within a short period of time, strange things begin to happen – scorch marks appear on the walls, the telephone rings in the middle of the night and then goes dead, and the family dog acts out of character. Are these events caused by a ghost, as Betty the young servant girl believes, or something far more sinister?

Sarah Waters’ newest novel is Gothic in style. Set in post-war England sometime in the the late 1940s and narrated by a questionable narrator (Dr. Faraday), the story unfolds slowly at first but then picks up about mid-way through the book. Waters takes her time to carefully develop her characters and introduces the theme of class differences early on when it becomes evident that Dr. Faraday has never relinquished his dismay at being the son of a maid, and the Ayreses (despite their current bleak economic situation) will always consider themselves a family of means.

As in all good Gothic novels, Hundreds Hall becomes a character in the book. The descriptions of the house’s decline, its dark and gloomy halls and closed off rooms with peeling or mildewed wallpaper, seems to be a metaphor for the economic decline of the times. Beneath its crumbling exterior, the house also holds family secrets and tragedy.

Waters gives clues as to the malevolent presence in the house, but it is not until the end that I was certain of its origins…and then I was thrilled by Waters’ deft manipulation of her story. As with all of her work, Waters’ writing is sophisticated and satisfying, and filled with descriptions which capture the historical time of the story.

My only complaint, and it is a small one, was the slow pace at the beginning of the book. Waters takes her time to set the stage and introduce her characters, and at times I grew impatient for some action. Once events start to happen, however, the pace picks up. I found myself reading straight through the last 150 pages with barely a break.

Readers who have liked Waters’ previous books and who like a good Gothic mystery, will most likely find The Little Stranger an enjoyable, albeit disturbing, read.

12 Comments

  1. April 4, 2010    

    I really want to try one of Waters’ books and this one sounds right up my alley.

  2. April 4, 2010    

    Great review! I think The Night Watch will be my next Waters read.

  3. April 4, 2010    

    I LOVE Gothic literature. Yes, it can be cliched and kitschy (just like Gothic metal) but it never, ever gets old.

  4. April 5, 2010    

    I, too, love Gothic books, so that, coupled with the fact that Water’s is a favorite author, make me really want to read this book. I am glad that you enjoyed it so much and though it started off slow, it seems like it turned out to be a wonderful read for you. Great review!

  5. April 6, 2010    

    Ooh, I’ve added this to my wishlist now! I love how you describe Hundreds Hall as being a character in the novel … that always pulls me in, when a house (or town or other setting) plays such an important role.

    Thanks for sharing this great review, Wendy.

  6. April 11, 2010    

    I just read my first Sarah Waters book “Fingersmith” and I just LOVED it! I think I shall be reading this … though I find it hard to imagine one of her books moving slow! : )

  7. April 11, 2010    

    Kathy: This is a good one 🙂

    Gavin: I really like The Night Watch – hope you will too!

    El Fay: I agree – some of the Gothics have been my favorite books 🙂

    Zibilee: Well if you like Waters AND Gothic books, this one should work for you!

    Dawn: You’re welcome! I like when houses become characters as well.

    Jenners: I loved Fingersmith – great book. This book is not quite as wonderful, but it is still a good read.

  8. April 17, 2010    

    I just got this from the library and is on my reading list this week. I am looking forward to reading it.

  9. April 20, 2010    

    Bobbie: Oh, I hope you love it!

  10. verbatim verbatim
    July 26, 2010    

    I finally finished this one so now I can read your review. (I know you don’t do spoilers, but I wanted to read it without preconceived ideas.) I agree with the general consensus — not my favorite Waters book, but still very good. I need a little more time to think about it, but I intend to re-read the Edgar Allan Poe story “William Wilson” as this reminds me very much of the ending of that story.

  11. August 15, 2010    

    Verbatim: I also wait to read reviews before I write my own 🙂 I haven’t read the Poe story…interesting that you find them similar…I’ll have to pick up a copy of that some time. Even though I didn’t LOVE this book, I liked it well enough…and I will continue to read books by Waters who I think “hits” more than she “misses”.

  12. November 11, 2010    

    I loved how gothic this was! It was perfect for RIP Challenge.

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