book review

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Little Stranger is a subtle ghost story, set in a crumbling mansion in the 1940s, during the rise of socialism and the professional classes which were threatening the existence of the landed gentry. It follows Dr Faraday, a working class man whose mum used to work as a nanny at Hundreds Hall, as he befriends the current occupants – Mrs Ayres, Caroline and Roderick – after being called out there to see to a patient.

This book put me in mind of Shirley Jackson’s A Haunting of Hill House, and its subtle, creeping, eerie feeling. The Little Stranger is a similar style – it relies on the build up and tension of what may be going on, rather than any real encounters between the protagonist and and ghostly phenomena, and, at 500 pages long, it’s definitely a slow burner. This book will not be everyone, I don’t think, especially if you want more outright ghostliness.

The Little Stranger is just as much a comment on class hierarchies in England at the time, which were crumbling as much as Hundreds Hall was physically. They discuss many times in the novel what could be causing the ghostly happenings – whether it is just mental illness in the inhabitants or some violent, unearthly force – and I think it’s important to note that these things only start happening after Dr Faraday, who embodies the professional working classes, arrives at Hundreds Hall. This novel is detailed, beautifully written, with well realised characters and multiple levels. I’ve had a lot of fun thinking about the ending since I stopped reading and what it could mean (hello, English Lit student).

I’d describe this novel as part ghost story, part historical fiction. I expected it to be more ghostly when I started it – and I do think the ghost story elements aren’t what really fascinates Waters here, and could have had more done with them. I would also say that the book is probably slightly too long – you could cut some length and it that elevate some of the tension of the ghost story, I think. Luckily, I also liked the more historical threads to the novel, and Waters’ writing style.

Faraday also became a wearying character at times, as he was so self-involved and blind to a lot of what was happening.

The Little Stranger marries the eerie and atmospheric with a detailed and compelling narrative. I definitely want to explore more of Sarah Waters’ work after this!

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