The Little Stranger is set in rural post-war England, in Warwickshire to be exact. It centres around a sprawling Georgian stately home called Hundreds Hall, which has been home to the genteel Ayres family for over two hundred years. But when Dr. Faraday arrives at the Hall where his mother once worked as a servant to treat the present-day Ayres’ one remaining servant, Betty, he finds the house has gone into a sharp decline.
The charming and once very beautiful Mrs Ayres lives with her resoundingly plain daughter Caroline and her son Roderick, who was disfigured as an RAF pilot during the war. They exist in an odd kind of poverty, surrounded by the relics of the family’s previous splendour but huddled around a fire because they can’t afford to keep their electric generator going, closing up room after room until the house gets smaller and smaller.
Dr Faraday is enchanted by the house and its inhabitants and he is drawn into their world. Even Caroline starts to seem less plain to him. But the house is not the inanimate, quaint old place he first imagined and soon strange things start happening….
I wasn’t entirely enthusiastic about reading this book for some reason but I was drawn in by Waters’ easy, fluid style from the very first page. There’s nothing pretentious about her prose, which I found refreshing, and she has an incredible knack for writing dialogue. Her characters always seem plausible and I thought she represented the effect the house had on Dr Faraday in a rather clever way.
Even when I was reading this book on the tube in twenty-minute bursts, I never lost my thread or forgot what was going on. There’s nothing fussy about Sarah Waters so there’s nothing that to get in the way of the surprisingly tender moments that are often to be found in this story of the old-fashioned British upper class.
Yes, the British class system and its idiosyncrasies are a central feature of this book. The tragically comic Ayres family can be seen living in dreadful conditions, despite their aristocracy. Like their crumbling house, they are relics from another age, scorned and derided by the rest of England. No one wants to see ‘their sort’ around any more, or so they think, which is true in many ways, and in many ways quite rightly so! Nevertheless, it’s awful to see their struggle on a personal level and it’s hard not to have sympathy for them, not to be charmed by them, just as Dr Faraday is.
Anyway, give The Little Stranger a try. It walks a strange tightrope between cosy and unsettling in a way that always keeps the narrative feeling fresh. I guarantee you that reading it will never feel like a chore.