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[280] The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters

“This is a weirder thing even than hysteria. It’s as if—well, as if something’s slowly sucking the life out of the family . . . The whole bloody business baffles me! There are things that have happened, over at Hundreds, that I can’t explain. It’s as if the house is in the grip of some sort of miasma. ” [11:359-360]

Sheer chance has it that Dr. Faraday answers a house call at Hundreds Hall, where he once attended Empire Day festivity as a boy about 30 years ago, and re-acquaints with the Ayres, an old family family that is defeated by history. Despite signs of decay around the house and an economizing lifestyle, the Ayres live in dignity within their limited means. Looming beneath the peace and quiet of Hundreds Hall is a charged creepiness that a new housemaid first addresses when the doctor is summoned to her sick bed. She has feigned illness to be rid of her duties at night.

But at night, I’m all on me own. There in’t a sound! I have horrible dreams . . . And it wouldn’t be so bad, but they make me go up and down that set of old back stairs. There’s so much corners, and you don’t know what’s round ’em. I think I shall die of fright sometimes. [1:12]

“Slowly, bit by bit, through snippets of events that initially bear neither relation nor premonition to what is to follow, Waters has set up a mood such that something uncanny is at work. It seems a strange coincidence that Betty claims Hundreds has a diabolical thing in it should have found in Roderick’s delusion. The ex RAF is attached to the delusion that he produces a logical-seeming fear hat the evil force will rid of everyone in the house.

Because what he had to do now, he said, was watch. He had to watch every object, every corner and shadow in the room, had to keep his gaze moving restlessly from one surface to another. For he knew that the malevolent thing which he tried to hurt him before was still in there with him, waiting. [5:155]

Stress and tension elevate as inexplicably frightful incidents proliferate in both audible and visual forms. The unaccounted for rat-tat-tat thumping leads Caroline Ayres to discover some aged childish doodles on the wall behind a dresser. Abstract idea of some outlandish, diabolical being becomes concrete evidence as each inhabitant of the house falls prey to a mysterious force, hallucination, noises—anything but a ghost, as nobody mentions ghost, even though all the indications suggest otherwise. Nerves are on edge.

And it was only when that was done, she told me, that the queerness of the whole thing began to strike her. She had been unafraid before, but now the taps, the discovery of the marks, her mother’s response, the current silence: she thought it all through, and felt her courage begin to waiver. [9:291]

The Little Stranger is not a traditional horror story, whether the ravenous shadow-creature does exist on its own or spawns from the troubled unconscious of someone connected with the house. It is a psychological thriller that deals with social class as it witnesses a gentry family that, instead of advancing with time, retreats to decadence. It also ponders the dynamics of human relationships: of the complex ties between parent and children, of the bonds between siblings, and of human yearnings. Any comparison of this novel to Fingersmith is irrelevant, as they are in totally different sub-genre. The plot of Fingersmith is enriched and sustained by many twists; whereas the novel in question is highly atmospheric, building upon snippets of information that become significant later.

528 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


28 Responses

  1. I can’t wait to read more of Sarah Waters books after I had read Tipping the Velvet and enjoyed it!

    The problem is I’m not sure if I should read Fingersmith or The Little Stranger first. Decisions, decisions! 😉

    • If you are in the mood for twists and more twists, Fingersmith is the book for you. If you want something more atmospheric, pick up The Little Stranger. 🙂

  2. Glad you find it on a different genre than her other books! 🙂

  3. Thanks for the review – I have owned this book for months but for some reason I never seem to pick it up. I think because Ive heard it has a slow start?

    • Indeed. The Little Stranger doesn’t give me that “oh-my-gosh” feeling during the first 40 or so pages. But Sarah Waters does drop some hints that it’s going to be a thrill ride. Let the mood settle and then you’ll be craving for more. 🙂

  4. This was my first Waters read, and on audio it SHONE. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the wonderful Simon Vance was the narrator, but the story, the building tension, the last sentence that left you screaming “what???”, it is all sooooo good.

    • I love this book! I realize it’s irrelevant and unfair to compare it to Fingersmith, which is totally a different league, not in terms of her skills as a writer but subject matter. Although this one doesn’t blow me away from the very beginning like Fingersmith does, it builds on to itself.

  5. Ok, I obviously need to get on the Sarah Waters bandwagon and fast! I’m being left in the dust, because I still haven’t read anything by her! I’m going to the library this weekend to pick up some travel books, so perhaps I’ll pop down to the Ws, and see if I can find something to rectify the situation!

  6. This one was already on my list after reading Fingersmith. While your review makes it clear that this is quite a different sort of novel than Fingersmith, it also makes me want to read this one even sooner. I’m definitely feeling like a Water fan after only one book!

    • I’m totally with you. I am a fan before I even finished Fingersmith. Now I’ll rewind and start from the beginning: read her debut novel, Tipping the Velvet.

  7. Thank you for saying it’s irrelevant to compare this with Fingersmith. This actually has the most appealing premise of all her books to me but almost all the reviews say it’s disappointing when compared to Fingersmith, which is why I will be reading it first, and the rest of her books later.

    • The premise of The Little Stranger does appeal to me because I’m a sucker for creepy, chilling tale. I love this book even more because her writing is just elegant.

  8. The only comparison that’s relevant between Fingersmith and The Little Stranger is that they both showcase the fact that Waters is a very talented writer. I cannot believe this did not make the Orange shortlist. As much as I love Lorrie Moore, I think this is a much better book than The Gate at the Stairs.

    • To be honest, before I picked up Fingersmith, which has been a favorite of mine this year, I hesitated about The Little Stranger for the same reason you mentioned. I looked at the overall reviews and not everyone gave it thumb up. Then I decided to give it a go because I have become a fan after Fingersmith. As soon as I started the book I realize it doesn’t really matter that people don’t sing praises of it like they do Fingersmith, because this book belongs to a different genre.

  9. Ooh, I can’t wait to read this.

  10. i can’t decide if i really want to read this or i don’t. hah, i guess that means i should read it.

  11. I am definitively going to pick up the Little Stranger now. You talked me into it.

  12. I had read the Little Stranger but was very very disappointed. Kept expecting something more to happen but it never did. But Fingersmith sounds good so I am gonna give that a try!

  13. I love your review! I’ve never read anything from Ms. Waters but I’ve had my eye on this one and now I know I must read it soon. Thanks you!

    • I’m glad you’ll seek this one out. Just don’t expect it will be the same as Fingersmith, which has the highest overall rating of any of her books. 🙂

  14. […] unexpected twist is less stunning than those of Fingersmith, and the atmosphere less creepy than The Little Stranger except for the one memorable passage on moving waxen […]

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