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Book Review: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

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The Little Stranger is a brooding and evocative tale set in Warwickshire, England in the late 1940s. World War II is over, but privation continues. Narrator Dr. Faraday, the son of simple, working-class folk, is a country physician, tending to all manner of ailments among the local, mostly working-class or poor residents.

There had always been estates in Warwickshire, although many have fallen on hard times by this point, their owners unable to keep them up. Hundreds Hall is one such house on the edge of financial ruin. Dr. Faraday visited once as a boy, when his mother worked as a nanny at the grand home of the Colonel and Mrs. Ayres.

Thirty years later, the Colonel is long dead. His son Roderick, who was horribly injured during the war, is trying to manage the remaining farm and house with his scars and limp. His sister Caroline had come back to the Hundreds to nurse Roderick and stayed on to help him and their mother. Together they are holding on, with just enough to live on and afford one daytime housekeeper and one live-in maid.

Dr. Faraday is called to the Hundreds one day to tend to the maid, Betty, a girl of just 14. He finds Betty only pretending to be ill. New to the post, she is unhappy in no small part because she feels there is "something bad" in the house. Dr.Faraday chides her for such nonsense.

Dr. Faraday offers to treat Roderick's injuries and begins to make regular trips to the Hundreds, and becomes a friend of the Ayres'. When a new family moves into a nearby estate, Mrs. Ayres decides to have a party to welcome them. The house is readied with great anticipation, but the night ends in tragedy.

From this point on, strange things happen at the hall, affecting one family member after another, becoming spookier as time goes on. Betty is convinced the house is haunted, perhaps by the spirit of the first Ayres child, a daughter who died in childhood of diphtheria; Roderick feels there is something in the house that he must keep at bay; and Caroline feels the house itself is capable of mischief.

Dr. Faraday, exasperated with all the superstition, tries to demonstrate there are rational explanations for everything. He thinks, perhaps, it is a kind of hysteria, started by Betty and spread among the Ayres, although even he has seen things even he cannot explain. In despair, he confides the whole scenario in a fellow physician, who postulates some kind of psychic force constituted in those living there. Is the house haunted? If so, by what? These things are left to the reader to decide as the plot drives toward its conclusion.

The Little Stranger is a very English story (author Sarah Waters is a Londoner). It is dense, Dickensian in its description of most of Dr. Faraday's patients, spellbound by class differences and the Ayres fall in fortune. Waters spends a great deal of time detailing both the grandeur and the decline of Hundreds Hall. One could almost find one's way around it, feel the chill of the shut-up rooms, and hear the echoes of footsteps on the marble floor after so many words devoted to it.

If you're the sort of reader who does not enjoy such detail, this book might well drive you to distraction, as it takes its time getting to the plot points. I have to admit some impatience with it, no doubt because I knew it was a ghost story and couldn't wait for the fireworks to begin. I also got a bit frustrated with Dr. Faraday's denseness about the strange occurrences.

Even so, The Little Stranger is absorbing, it's portrait of post-war rural England fascinating, its characters compelling. Hundreds Hall will draw you in just like it did Dr. Faraday. If you've got some time to devote to it, The Little Stranger may just be your cup of tea.

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About Nancy Fontaine

Nancy Fontaine is a librarian and freelance writer living in New Hampshire with her husband, two cats, and every four years during presidential primary season, the national press.