This was heralded as a ‘departure’ for Sarah Walters, whose previous novel have taken well-worked historical time periods and then shaken things up with lesbian protagonists. They’re racy reads, but I was ready for a change and so was really pleased when I heard that ‘The Little Stranger’ showed her doing something different.
The setting is still historical, and Waters shows herself utterly at home in the Agatha Christie world of the 1940s English countryside. There is the obligatory dilapidated country house, struggling to survive with post-war servants. There is the intelligent yet bumbling outsider, a country physician who finds himself increasingly entangled with the family who inhabit said dilapidated mansion. There is the eccentric old country family itself, struggling to survive in modern Britain.
The aftershocks of the war are evident everywhere, but there is a more private trauma haunting the Ayres family. Their dependance on Doctor Faraday (the son of one of their formal servants) is only a symptom of their disintegration. As the house crumbles around them and the kitchen maid suspects there’s something creepy about the whole set up, there are hints of darker forces at work. Might there be something more damaging than post-war finances to worry the family? Why do unexplained violent things start happening? How much of the family’s problems are caused by self-loathing, and how much from someone else’s hatred? And what do you think of the narrator, how much do you trust the social-climbing everyman who always arrives on the scene a little to late?
With echoes of ‘The Turn of the Screw’, ‘The Little Stranger’ slowly builds up tension until you don’t know who to trust. Whether you read it as a ghost story or as psychological horror, what start as atmospheric moments of eeriness soon turn into full blown gory set pieces. Oh, and there’s also a love story, though this does not make it any less frightening.
‘The Little Stranger’ shows Sarah Waters at her best. The historical setting is masterful, perfectly complimenting the generic conventions of the plot and allowing for the more complex undertones of social commentary and criticism. If this isn’t a story about poltergeists then it’s definitely one about the class inequality and women getting hurt. It will frighten you and make you think and you can’t ask much more of any book.