The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
Finished: May 26, 2009
First Published: Apr. 30, 2009
Genre: Gothic, historical fiction
I first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old.
Reason for Reading: Sarah Waters had a new book out! Need I say more! I received a review copy from Random House Canada.
Comments: The Ayres family have lived at Hundreds Hall since the early-mid 1700s and now in post-war times (WWII) there remain three family members, one live-in servant and one half-time servant under its roof. During the war, they did their part for the war effort giving their rooms over to soldiers, their land over to the army for its use, their silver for melting, their furs, woolens, linens, etc for cutting apart and making clothing, handing down clothing they didn't need for those left without homes after the bombings and now that the war is over they have little left. Mrs. Ayres, in her fifties, not old by any means, seems old as she belongs to a different generation and the children try to keep the facts of their penury from her. Roderick, returns from the war a cripple and after recovering from his wounds tries to keep the dairy farm and the estate running for his mother's sake even if it kills him. Caroline is called home from the WRENs to nurse her brother through the long recovery from his injuries at his homecoming and then settles down to help with the estate; a robust, active, yet plain woman she is many years past the expected age of marrying yet she still hopes and now she can be found either in the kitchen with the women help or out on the land helping out the dairy farmer. But this is nothing especially special about the Ayres family, this is a situation that a geat many of the landed gentry of England found themselves in post WWII and the only way they managed to survive was to sell off the land piece by agonizing piece.
What makes the Ayres special is Hundreds Hall itself. Naturally without the money, the manpower or the resources it is falling to pieces and slowly crumbling around them. Most rooms have been completely closed off and more and more are closed off each season but that is not it either. Upon the new live-in maid's arrival she immediately falls ill of a stomach ache and confides in the doctor that something bad is in the house. He tells her she is homesick and not to be silly. The other maid eventually becomes aware of a presence causing trouble in her kitchen. Roderick is found many times bumped and bruised in the night and he claims someone is moving large pieces of furniture in his room. In fact Roddie starts having many unexplained, even dangerous, episodes. Mrs. Ayres is not herself anymore. She has heard voices and seems to be living in the past. Caroline herself is looking at books on Poltergeists and Phantasms in the library. While the Doctor is trying to cope with everyone's mental state he finds out first hand that there are some things that no matter how much he tries to explain them away reasonably, he knows what he has seen with his own eyes and heard with his own ears and can't quite shake the feeling. Has an old family madness caught up with them all? Is there a ghost in the house? A poltergeist perhaps? Or maybe, it is that the house itself is evil?
This is something a little different for Waters. I've only read Fingersmith myself so far but I've read plot summaries of the others and feel confident in saying this is not her usual comfort zone. I loved the time period and the look inside the lives of post war gentry, while the doctor who comes from a poor background adds contrast to the two different ways of life even in hard times. There is a romance between the doctor and one of the female characters that slowly develops during the book and doesn't really come to a head until near the end of the book but it is an element that keeps the story on a basic plot, the relationship between the two, as all the madness is going on sometimes taking over the plot but always returning to that basic thread; which holds the book together well in my opinion. In fact, it is the ending of this book that infuriated me. It did not end the way I had expected and I was quite shocked with the outcome and actually quite annoyed that things ended up the way they did. I've had time to recuperate now, but that is the sign of good characterization, when a book's characters mean so much to you that you are invested in them and want all to end well for them all. When a book can make you get mad at it, because you are on the charaters' side that's when I know I've just read a brilliant book.
Sarah Waters is a brilliant storyteller. Right from page one I was dragged into her world and could not escape. I read this book much more quickly than I would another book of the same page length. I took it everywhere with me and could not stop reading. Comparing it to Fingersmith, it didn't have as many twist and turns and excitement but then it is a different type of book. This is an atmospheric book and a splendidly well-crafted ghost story. Enjoy!