In the vein of Henry James, Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger is a story that leaves readers wondering whether it is a ghost story or an account of psychological breakdown.
The Little Stranger is different from the British author’s earlier works in a few respects.
Waters’ first three decadent novels have lesbian narrators who struggle with the confines of being female during the Victorian era. They are rich stories, full of twists and turns. A few lesbians narrate Waters’ fourth novel, The Night Watch, which is also full of plot surprises, though it departs from Waters’ earlier work by changing the scenery to the 1940s.
The Little Stranger is Waters’ first novel told in first person from a male perspective. Dr. Faraday is an old bachelor who is enamored with a mansion called Hundreds Halls where his mother worked as a nurse. As a child, he was only allowed inside once.
The novel is set in the English countryside after World War II. Faraday receives a call from Hundreds Halls that the maid, Betty, is ill. When he comes to investigate, he silently commends her for being a good actress while chiding her for faking sickness. She admits she’s afraid of a bad thing in the house and that she wants to be treated better by the family. Faraday tells Betty not to be silly but decides to talk to the family about how she’s treated.
At this point Dr. Faraday meets Mrs. Ayres, a handsome widow who still attempts to maintain old-fashioned customs even though the divides between social classes are narrowing and her estate is impoverished. Her son, Roderick, is a war veteran who feels guilty that he lives with a disability, rather than having died like his younger comrades. His sister, Caroline, is a plain woman who has tried to help the family where she can.
Even though Faraday initially dislikes the Ayres, he’s drawn to them. Over the course of a year, both the house and the family disintegrate. Faraday tries to help them the best he can, but even for his scientific mind, the implication of spirits become a possible explanation for the events that occur at Hundreds Halls.
Waters’ prose is slow and methodical, yet at the same time eloquent and engaging. Historical details are well researched. Characters are well rounded and their flaws and attributes are so well described that it’s difficult to know whether they are particularly likeable or not. Regardless, they’re interesting.
Although The Little Stranger keeps the reader thinking about the mystery and looking for clues or possible plot twists, the book remains ambiguous. This is particularly disappointing since Waters has proven so adept at plot twists in her previous books. Perhaps, for her fans, the absence of a twist is the shock. Still, the lack of variation makes this novel seem less clever and leaves the reader feeling that something is missing.
Also, though Waters does a fabulous job writing in first person from a male perspective, it is not as interesting as her previous novels. There are many similar stories written from a male perspective. There are much fewer told from the perspective of historical lesbian women. It’s interesting to learn about women’s prisons and mediums in Affinity. Likewise, Fingersmith presents a unique viewpoint on women’s asylums and class differences.
Historically speaking, there is nothing particularly illuminating about the angle in The Little Stranger.
Waters’ latest piece doesn’t come close to her unique and engrossing earlier writing. It is a good read, but nothing spectacular.