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.