Book Review: ‘The Little Stranger’ by Sarah Waters

It’s not often I come across a novel so strong that it reaches out into my thoughts and life while I’m reading it so that I can’t wait to get back to it. Sarah Waters, however, is one novelist who does indeed write stories like this.

In The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, the central paranormal premise is one that I haven’t come across before, in all my research: and even I found it difficult to take on board alongside all the other theories I’ve considered: but in this unsettling weirdness lies its power.

Book cover image The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The author’s slow build-up of fear, grief and madness among the family is extraordinary. The quality of her narrative does find a resonance within the classic tales of the macabre: the first person narrator, a correct, professional man, often seems rather tedious, conventional and pedestrian in his way of expressing himself, and in his attitudes and opinions; and yet his stolid painstaking description of events makes the whole story even more gripping.

The story centres upon the kind of 17th century mansion which we may see quietly and mournfully disintegrating behind locked gates and weed-infested drives, because the last of the family have died and no-one else wants to buy the sinister premises. This Warwickshire mansion, however, is now seeing the final weeks and months of its life as a barely living home, in the years following the Second World War. The owners have been reduced to a vulnerable trio: Mrs Ayres, a widow whose little daughter met tragic death years before; Roderick, her thin, nervous, touchy son who is trying to manage the estate whilst suffering shellshock from his war service; and her daughter Caroline, who appears competent and resilient but who will soon prove herself as vulnerable as the others.

Alongside them, Betty, the young maidservant, is also a very significant character. She is the first to notice and to articulate the invisible ‘something bad’ in the house that is affecting them all; and at that time a character of her gender and social status would of course have been the easiest to deride or to ignore. Yet we the readers know better; she is correct in her observations, and she should have been taken seriously from the very first.

 I love to find myself so captivated by a story that I have to get back to it at every opportunity, and the characters and their situation haunts me, and I wake up thinking about them and wondering what is going to happen to them. It’s actually quite a rare experience to come across a novel like this.

As the story progressed the feeling grew on me more and more that Dr Faraday, the narrator, is controlling and manipulating the family under the guise of offering support. I did, also, feel that Mrs Ayres, Rod and Caroline were too passive and compliant in their response, and later in the novel I found myself willing them on to be much more assertive with him, in particular, his insistence on minimising and trivialising their growing terror of ‘the thing’ in the house, and constantly trying to rationalise it.  This is a general attitude mirrored later in the novel by other members of the community: once again, they could not be more wrong.

The author has said that sometimes she feels she has not fully met the challenge of writing a story centred upon this kind of paranormal activity, as quite a lot of readers have asked for somebody to ‘explain’ the ending to them. However, I found the ending perfect: it tells me everything the reader wants and needs to know. It is indeed a huge challenge for a modern gothic fiction writer to handle this kind of subject, which is on one hand so vaporous, and on the other hand so terrifyingly real for those who experience it, and provide a satisfying conclusion without falling into the trap of over-explaining.

This is clearly a five-star book, and in my eyes, the best Sarah Waters novel that I have read.

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Published by SC Skillman

I'm a writer of psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction. My latest book, 'Paranormal Warwickshire', was published by Amberley Publishing in November 2020. Find all my published books here:

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