Having left the bodice-ripping, page-turning Victorian gothic of her first three novels behind in her previous outing, The Night Watch, a novel that was far more literary than anything she’d tried her hand at previously (the backwards narrative is a keen sign of ‘here is a writer who feels the need to prove his or herself to the literary establishment’), with The Little Stranger Sarah Waters pulls off an interesting trick: fashioning as compulsive a page-turner as she’s written so far without, to my mind, alienating the newer (and possibly more ‘high-brow’, whatever that can be said to mean) readership she picked up on The Night Watch.
It is the early 1950s. Dr Faraday, an unmarried GP just out of his first flush of youth (and, if what Waters has said in interviews to be pertinent, no doubt flushed with the exhaustion of the post-war period) is called to Hundreds Hall, a once grand old pile where his mother worked as a scullery maid. His visit is to see a young maid who has been complaining of stomach ache but is really just home-sick and not really enjoying her new job. This visit (during which he meets the last of the Ayres family: son, nominal head of the household and master of all he surveys, Rodderick, a man badly injured in the war and given to hobbling about on his gammy leg; his manly sister Caroline; and their mother, known as Mrs Ayres, for the most part) precipitates an invitation by Faraday to try out a new electrical therapy on Roddie and leads to more visits and a greater familiarity with the Ayres’ troubles (the long and short of which are that they are former nobility fallen on hard times).
Hundreds Hall falling to rack and ruin is soon, however, the least of the Ayres’ family’s troubles. A dinner party thrown in honour of some new/nouveau neighbours ends disastrously after Caroline’s dog, a faithful retainer called Gyp, attacks and badly disfigures a child. This is followed in short succession by the resurrection of Roddie’s ‘nervous problems’ (he suspects the objects in his bedroom of having a life of their own), a fiery disaster narrowly averted and all manner of whistling through old-fashioned speaking tubes, tap-tap-tapping on the ceilings and the walls, furniture being moved about and ashy scribbles.
Our narrator Dr Faraday is, of course, the very embodiment of Ichabod Crane and refuses to believe there could be anything but a rational explanation for all of the odd occurrences (even as Caroline and her mother and the young maid Betty come to suspect that the house has a ‘little stranger’ who wishes them ill). Which may lead you to think that what we have here in The Little Stranger is Sarah Waters’ haunted house novel. Certainly many reviewers have said, having ‘done’ Wilkie Collins in Fingersmith, she is now ‘trying her hand at’ Daphne Du Maurier, connections which do a great disservice to Waters own prowess and individuality. Arguably, The Little Stranger is as much ‘about’ class (Faraday, a working class boy made good, longs to be on the inside of the upper class window, rather than heatedly gazing in at the toffs) and the dying out of a certain kind of genteel life as it is ‘about’ ghostly goings on up at the old mansion house.
But, again, concentrating too hard on the specifics is almost to miss the point. The great joy of The Little Stranger (and The Night Watch and Fingersmith and Affinity, for that matter) is in the reading: the gentle way in which Waters leads you by the hand into the narrative, writing in a way that presupposes all tricks and flourishes (such that, even as you feverishly turn from page to page, hungry to know how things turn out, if what you think will happen actually will, you still find yourself nodding and smiling and saying ‘of course’ at each new discovery, as if the way Waters has things happen is the only way for those things to happen).
Certain reviewers of The Little Stranger have split hairs, saying that – whereas in, say, Fingersmith, Waters returned to an earlier time period in order to show us modern types another view of the world – she hasn’t repeated the trick this time around. To my mind, this is to Waters’ credit (whoever wants a writer to repeat tricks?); she is here doing something a little more difficult, a little more ambiguous and ambivalent – there aren’t always answers and novelists have to be able to assay those stories too.
Any Cop?: The Little Stranger is evidence of a writer, a rare and natural writer, writing at the top of her game.