Sarah Water’s 2009 novel The Little Stranger is a gratifying concoction of psychological mystery and gothic ghost story set in the post war English countryside. It follows in the grand gothic tradition of such tales as The Fall of the House of Usher and The Castle of Otranto pursing the familiar themes of psychological decline trapped within the confines of a symbolically deteriorating abode.
Hundreds Hall was once a grand sprawling estate owned by the Ayres family that has systematically declined along with the decline its family’s wealth. The book’s narrator, Dr. Faraday is a small town country doctor with a curious affinity for a house he encountered only once before as small child when attending a fete with his mother a former house maid at the hall. He recalls that shortly after this visit the Ayres tragically lost their then only daughter Susan,
After some thirty years absence events conspire to bring him back to Hundreds Hall when he finds himself back at the house professionally to tend to a sick maid, whom he finds out is actually not so sick but rather unnerved by something faintly malevolent about the house that she doesn’t quite understand. He dismisses her as a young, uneducated, homesick child, but does cover for her deception understanding the emotional strain such a situation could create.
Although initially the doctor is surprised by the current condition of the once majestic hall, he soon finds himself intrigued by the Ayres family and begins to visit regularly, ostensibly manufacturing reasons for repeated visits, and rapidly he becomes entwined with the lives of increasingly troubled family.
It soon becomes apparent that the family is under escalating pressure, each member is already marked personal psychological issues and these are only exacerbated by the financial strain of the collapsing estate. We become aware of the barely disguised fragility of each family member; matriarch, Mrs. Ayres, still mourning the death of her first child has retreated into a blissful state of self denial, daughter Caroline, just as her life was getting started free of the burden of Hundreds found circumstances dragged her back and now she is resentful feeling nothing but trapped by what was once her home and son Roderick, who bears his wounds psychically in burns and injuries sustained during the war, must deal not only with trauma of surviving the horrors of war and coming to terms with his incurred injuries but also the impossible burden of master of the house managing a penniless, unworkable estate.
But peculiar forces are work at Hundreds Hall, and as a cycle of increasingly disturbing events begins to play out within the hall, Dr. Faraday finds himself acting as voice of reason continually explaining events away as the result of overactive imaginations or the natural peculiarities of an old, worn house. The Ayres family, however, continue to become more and more convinced that they are, in fact, haunted or, at the very least, cursed and no amount of rational explanations from self-appointed logical interpreter Dr. Faraday can fully convince them otherwise. As the Ayreses are perversely compelled to remain, the doctor is then left to witness the systematic destruction of a family in crisis, trapped by the very symbol of their former wealth and standing amid the crumbling ruins of what was once the noble Hundreds Hall.
In terms of actual paranormal, or alleged paranormal, events they are sporadic and few and far between, it is, rather, the suggestion of possibilities that is intriguing and the continual question of psychological rationale versus supernatural culpability and it these factors combined that contribute to the pervading unsettling tone.
Along with its potentially ghostly and mystery themes it is also fair to say that there is a strong vein of social commentary running through the book, we see anxiety from the doctor regarding the onset of the NHS and the suggestion of the Ayreses deteriorating situation and loss of status as being directly correlative with the new labour government. More significantly, the doctor insinuating himself into life at the hall introduces class themes, irrespective of their current situation the Ayreses are of higher birth and their breeding consequently places a doctor as essentially a servant leading to a precarious undercurrent in the burgeoning relationships. Equally, the doctor clearly exhibits conflict with his own class status, he displays in equal measures both working class guilt and contempt for his humble roots and significantly his aspirational desire for Hundreds Hall and what it represents seems to continually override his better judgement and to be his prime motivator.
Really The Little Stranger is neither a ghost story nor a thriller though it does utilise elements of both genres, it is more a poignant insight into a troubled family in the wake of a war struggling with their own disparate yet inexorably co-dependant personal tragedies. It is both beautifully crafted and beautifully written, a compelling read that could certainly appeal to genre fiction lovers as well as more traditionally oriented readers.