Sarah Waters (2009) The Little Stranger

I like a good ghost story. And you can see from the number of re-prints and  the way that The Little Stranger in no stranger to the shortlist for the Man Booker that this is a good.  The book begins after The First World War then jumps thirty years to the end of the Second World War, with Dr Faraday and Hundreds Hall. The Hundreds Hall is in itself not just a Gothic backdrop but a major character in the book. It opens with Faraday an intelligent ten-year old boy being taken by his mother to the Hall for Empire Day fete. He dutifully salutes with the other Boy Scouts while Mrs Ayers and the Colonel present them with the commemorative Empire medal. Afterwards, they sat with their parents at long tables on the south lawn for a good feed. Mrs Ayres is twenty four, or twenty five, the queen of all she surveys. As a special treat, and because Faraday’s mother worked as a nursemaid in Hundreds Hall, her son is sneaked into the house to admire its opulence, and he makes his mark, stealing a decorative wooden acorn. But like the British Empire, Hundreds Hall has reached its nadir.

Dr Faraday is the third-person narrator –with the ability to recall precisely what other characters heard, or saw, or smelt, or what they said to each other – which is useful trait for any family doctor in the small and insular English village of Lipicott.  He is now an old man and bachelor of fortyish, worried what this new-fangled NHS will destroy his practice and his livelihood and leave him unable to pay debts he’s run up training to be a doctor and buying into a practice. The call out to Hundreds Hall is a welcome distraction. He has fond memories of its grandeur. But the grounds are overgrown and the stately home falling to bits.  He’s met by no one and enters the house unannounced.  Gyp, the Ayres’s family watchdog, barks and comes scuttling to announce his presence, followed by Roderick master of the house, aged twenty-six or twenty-seven, but with a gamy leg, and burns, having done his bit for the war effort, he’s at the end of his tether.  He’s followed by his sister, Caroline, a few years older. Thirtyish, unlikely to marry, but called back to duty at the Hall and to care for Roderick. Dr Farady, has been called to treat Betty, fourteen, the Ayres’s only live-in servant, but the house and its inhabitants is his real calling. Betty is feigning stomach pain and appendix problems.

Bump in the night go Gyp and the caretakers of the ancestral pile almost in the order Dr Faraday meets them. Roderick is shipped off to a private lunatic asylum, another drain on the estate’s meagre resources. But as a medical man Dr Faraday provides the voice of reason, the rational voice, to the hysterical outbursts from the women. Betty’s illness isn’t so much she wants to go home, because home is an even more dispiriting place than Hundreds Hall, rather she wants to escape the malign influence of something she can’t see, but knows is there and calls it an ‘evil servant’.  Mrs Ayres acts a mother-like figure to Betty and this allows her to manipulate the girl and cover up the little stranger’s attacks on her, the mistress of the house. Stiff upper lip, set an example and never complain is Mrs Ayres’ downfall. She believes the little stranger is her deceased first-born daughter, Susan, calling to her, metaphorically and literally, through the old pipes in the nursery. Caroline believes its poltergeist activity, a belief shared in their own way by the housekeeper and Betty. Caroline suggests the malign presence is the house is systematically targeting each of the resident’s weaknesses. She points out that the invisible attacks on Rod came in his office, which doubled as his bedroom, a place where he worried over money and how to maintain the house and estate.  Faraday’s more rational explanation for each event lacks common sense. Even his colleague suggests all that incipient sexual energy may be playing a part.

In the end it doesn’t matter.  Building tension from Gyp tearing at a little girl’s face to Dr Faraday standing alone in Hundred Hall relies on uncertainty and belief. Both rely not on the suspension of belief but a shared vision of what is happening on the page is possible, or impossible dependent on what is shown and held back, and what we believe the characters are capable of. Waters has a head start here. Previous novels set in big county piles, play rich against poor. It’s no great surprise when Mrs Ayres admitted that while she’d come to rely on Dr Faraday, she hoped Caroline would make a match from someone that was not Dr Faraday.  But Caroline seems to know her own mind. When accompanying Dr Faraday to some dreary village dance, she meets a friend, whom she doesn’t like much, but worked with as a night warden  (cameo of The Night Watch). On the way back to Hundreds Hall, Dr Faraday and Caroline have their first tryst. They park at Lemmington for a bit of backseat grappling which come back to bite. This is mirrored at the end of the novel when Dr Faraday is called out to treat an unregistered patient that has stomach pain and, unless treated, a ruptured appendix, like Betty’s phantom pains, but which would kill him and he parks again at Lemminton. By that time the parvenu Dr Faraday’s engagement to Caroline has been called off and she is selling Hundreds Hall and escaping abroad. The beauty of the ending with Dr Faraday inside tending to the Hall is the bittersweet question is he –perhaps inadvertently- not the innocent narrator he portrays himself to be, or is he too being sucked in by the house.

It’s a The Little Stranger danger that cannot be avoided.  Hundreds Hall is not the type of house you’d like to spend a night. But turning the pages night after night, well, that’s a different story.  Worth reading. Sure to be a screenplay and film.

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