The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters: Book Review

The Little Stranger is the only book I’ve read by Sarah Waters. I saw the TV version of Tipping the Velvet and wasn’t impressed. It didn’t make me want to read any of her books. But, so many other bloggers have praised them that I was interested enough to borrow The Little Stranger when I saw it in the library. That’s the influence book bloggers have.

It begins very well – an old dilapidated house, Hundreds Hall, just after the end of the Second World War, a family struggling to come to terms with post-war life and lack of money, and the hint of something supernatural lurking in the background. The Hall has a major part in this book. This is how it is seen through the eyes of the narrator Dr Faraday, who had known it thirty years earlier when his mother had been a nursery maid there.

I remembered a long approach to the house through neat rhododendron and laurel, but the park was now so overgrown and untended, my small car had to fight its way down the drive. When I broke free of the bushes at last and found myself on a sweep of lumpy gravel with the Hall directly ahead of me, I put on the brake, and gasped in dismay. The house was smaller than in memory, of course – not quite the mansion I’d been recalling – but I’d been expecting that. What horrified me were the signs of decay. Sections of the lovely weathered edgings seemed to have fallen completely away, so that the house’s uncertain Georgian outline was even more tentative than before. Ivy had spread, then patchily died, and hung like rat’s-tail hair. The steps leading up to the broad front door were cracked, with weeds growing lushly up through the seams. (page 5)

Reminiscent of Rebecca, I thought. It’s not just the house that is decaying, the family too is cracking up. Dr Faraday remembered it in it’s prime – now there are just Mrs Ayres, Caroline her daughter and Roderick, her son left, living on their own in the house with help from one servant, a maid – Betty, a fourteen year old girl. Roderick was injured in the war, and Caroline is a plain young woman over-tall for a woman with thickish ankles and legs, but a ‘clever’ girl. Their mother still has a good figure, with a heart-shaped face and handsome dark eyes. As the book progresses she declines rapidly, overcome by events and it is soon revealed that she has never got over the death of her first child, Susan who was ‘her one true love’.

It begins with Dr Faraday called out to see Betty who tells him there is something bad in the house that makes wicked things happen. What follows is a sequence of terrible events. Dr Faraday is a very tedious character, dismissing all thoughts that things that are moved from one place to another and much worse events are in any way supernatural, believing there is either a rational or pscyhological explanation for it all.  He is reinforced in his beliefs when he talks to another doctor, Dr Seeley who says:

The subliminal mind has many dark corners, after all. Imagine something loosening itself from one of those corners. Let’s call it a – a germ. And let’s say conditions prove right for that germ to devlop – to grow like a child in the womb. What would this little stranger grow into? A sort of shadow-self, perhaps: a Caliban, a Mr Hyde. A creature motivated by all the nasty impulses and hungers the conscious mind had hoped to keep hidden away: things like envy, malice, and frustration … (page 380)

I got very tired of Dr Faraday and his persistence. It is all very drawn-out, no doubt to increase suspense but I felt that all the tension and spookiness that had initially been built up just drained away in the middle of the book. It did pick up towards the end with several dramatic scenes, but I think it would have been better if the book had been shorter. However, I did enjoy it – the descriptions of the house and park are vivid and I liked the social commentary. The post-war period is well defined, indicating the attitude of the upper classes towards the working classes, the coming introduction of the National Health Service and the breaking up of landed estates to build Council estates – new houses for the workers .

So, just what is the ‘ravenous frustrated energy’ at the heart of the matter? All the characters are built up as suspects and it was only towards the end that I realised what (or who) was responsible.

The Little Stranger has been shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Will it win? Maybe not, there are some other very good books on the list, which I suspect may over shadow this one.

10 thoughts on “The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters: Book Review”

  1. Margaret, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book. I’ve been considering reading it, but I’m still on the fence about it. It sounds a little slow in the middle and, while I like a gothic feel to books, I’m just not sure. I’ll leave it on the wishlist, but not rush to read it.

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  2. Very interesting review. I think Waters is so good on her descriptions of time periods and class differences. I found with Tipping the Velvet that, even though I’m not all that into reading about the varieties of lesbian sex (or heterosexual sex for that matter) (and yes, it grew tedious for me, as parts of this book grew tedious for you), I loved how well she evoked the era and the classism. I hope this reading and your tv experience with Tipping the Velvet don’t discourage you from reading Fingersmith. It is really a plot twister par excellence!

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  3. Margaret – Thanks for this review. I know exactly what you mean about the pace of a story. If it lags too much, it’s easy to lose interest. I’m also right with you about getting tired of characters. Maybe I’ll wait a bit on this one…

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  4. I’m glad to read this review. I’ve got many other books ahead of this one, and it’s good to know I’m not missing too much. I’m not a fast reader, and tired at the end of the day, so I’m careful about my reading time.

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  5. I read this earlier in the year and also felt that it was drawn out a little too long. I also didn’t find it that scary, where I know I’ve read other blogs where people say this was the scariest book that they have read.

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  6. I have also not read any Sarah Waters books but have just started reading this one a) because lots of other blogs liked it, b) because its an Orange Prize nominee and c) because it was reviewed on The First Tuesday Book Club (TV show). However (and I am only 80 pages in), I am not loving it either. I’ll persist for a little while, but I am pleased to find another person who is thoroughly bored by Dr Faraday!!

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  7. Margaret-I enjoyed thinking and reading other people’s thoughts on it more later then reading it myself. It was drawn out but perhaps that suits its era.

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