Oct 18, 2010

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger is a historical Gothic novel set in a decayed old mansion in Warwickshire in the late 1940’s. The narrator is one Dr. Faraday, a country doctor whose mother had once upon a time been a nursemaid at Hundreds Hall. Faraday renews his acquaintance with the old house and its inhabitants when one day he’s called by the Ayres family to see to their maid, Betty, who’s in bed with a bellyache. The doctor ends up befriending old Mrs Ayres and her daughter, Caroline; and more or less against the will of Roderick Ayres, begins to treat him for the muscle pains in his leg which result for a war injury.

The Ayres’ dire financial circumstances have left them isolated, and so it’s on the family doctor that they come to rely when increasingly strange things begin to happen at Hundreds Hall. Roderick is the first to be affected by them, but readers can tell from the very beginning that no one, not even our narrator, is going to be left untouched by what’s going on.

Earlier this year, I read The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey, a post-WW2 mystery novel in response to which Sarah Waters wrote The Little Stranger. I found that having Tey’s work in mind when I read this – especially her portrayal of the changes in the class system that followed the end of the war – made Sarah Waters’ novel all the more enjoyable.

The Little Stranger is a much more ambiguous novel than Tey’s, of course, and purposefully so. As is customary with Sarah Waters’ writing, nothing is clear cut; subtlety reigns and there are no well-defined sides. I don’t necessarily mean this in relation to the what-exactly-was-going-on aspect of the story (on which more later), but mostly in regards to how it portrays a quickly changing world. Perhaps the mindset with which I approached The Little Stranger is somewhat responsible, but from the very beginning the historical aspect interested me a lot more than the ghost story itself – not, mind you, that the two are at all easy to separate.

I love the fact that Waters writes about the personal consequences of the breakdown of the class system for the privileged and the unprivileged alike. It’s interesting to think about the role a man like Faraday played in maintaining the status quo himself, even though he clearly did not belong to the upper class himself. His fear and instinctive dislike of the National Health Service that was to come is perhaps a good example of his stance. Even though he didn’t belong with the Ayres, Faraday didn’t really want them, or people like them and the way of life they represented, to disappear completely. It’s difficult to write about this – the complicit role individuals or groups of people sometimes play in social systems that oppress them – without coming across like you’re blaming the victims, but if anyone can do it with sensitivity and insight, it’s Sarah Waters.

The Little Stranger isn’t really a novel that takes sides in a class war; in fact, the most interesting thing is that it doesn’t really present the social changes it portrays as a war at all. What Waters does is write about people, all of them complex, occasionally contradictory, and fully human, and about what it felt like to be them. Despite all her money and privilege, things were difficult for someone like Caroline Ayres, an educated and intelligent woman who, after being allowed to get out there and do something during the war, was forced back into a secluded existence serving her family and the estate once WW2 ended. Likewise, things were difficult for Betty the fourteen-year-old parlour maid (and Waters does of course draw attention to her age), or to someone like Faraday, stuck between classes and unsure of his place in the world.

What The Little Strange is, then, is a novel about misunderstandings and miscommunication between people and social classes; a novel about vertiginous change; and a novel about the very human fear and sense of misplacement that inevitably follows it. There’s so much bubbling under the surface here: the status difference between the Ayres and Dr. Faraday and the unacknowledged feelings of awkwardness and resentment that surround it; Roderick’s wartime experiences and his unnamed post-traumatic stress disorder; Mrs Ayres grief over the loss of her first child, the boredom and emptiness of Caroline’s post-war existence; and so on. All of these issues are bottled up and ready to explode, and they largely contribute to the suffocating and unsettling atmosphere that permeates the novel.

I was very impressed with Waters’ use of point of view in The Little Stranger: Faraday’s distance from some of the events he retells could easily have taken away from the story, but in fact it actually added to it. The deep sense of nostalgia and relish in that same nostalgia that accompany Faraday’s narration grabbed me immediately. I worry that by calling him an unreliable narrator I might be saying too much, but then again, this is a novel of lingering questions; not of twists or sudden revelations. The gap between what Faraday tells us and what we’re allowed to see for ourselves is a large part of what gives The Little Stranger its power.

As for the matter of the ending, or What Really Happened: though I’m a stubborn sceptic, as I read on I found myself favouring a supernatural explanation of events more and more, simply because this was the explanation that Faraday did not favour. His dismissal of Caroline’s thoughts in particular, his insistence on her exhaustion and incompetence, put me in mind of John, the narrator’s husband in “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Needless to say, I was very much inclined to disagree with anything he said. Which brings me to yet another source of unspoken tensions, one to which Waters devotes a lot of attention: the interplay between class and gender privilege, and how this affected the power dynamics in Caroline and the doctor’s relationship.

I find that I’m fairly comfortable with the novel’s somewhat ambiguous ending, as the questions it raised interested me more than any definitive answers ever could. I wrote “somewhat ambiguous”, by the way, because while I think that the text points towards one possibility more insistently than towards any others, it doesn’t completely close off alternative interpretations – and that, of course, only adds to its richness.

The Little Stranger didn’t exactly scare me, but that has more to do with me than with Sarah Waters’ writing, which is incredibly evocative and atmospheric. And I have to admit that the more I think about the story, the more unsettling I find it – and mostly for reasons that have little to do with the supernatural. I imagine that it takes a lot to successfully orchestrate a novel like this; a novel that simultaneously works on so many levels; a novel that implies so much without ever becoming heavy-handed or overdone. But then again, I always suspected Sarah Waters of being a genius. The Little Stranger is only further proof.

Interesting bits (spoilers in the second one):
Caroline, setting down a bowl of tea for Gyp to lap at, said, ‘Poor Betty. Not a natural parlourmaid.’
But her mother spoke indulgently. ‘Oh, we must give her more time. I always remember my great-aunt saying that a well-run house was like an oyster. Girls come to one as specks of grit, you see; ten years later, they leave one as pearls.’
She was addressing me as well as Caroline—clearly forgetting, for the moment, that my own mother had been one of the specks of grit her great-aunt had meant. I think even Caroline had forgotten it. They both sat comfortably in their chairs, enjoying the tea and the cake that Betty had prepared for them, then awkwardly carried for them, then cut and served for them, from plates and cups which, at the ring of a bell, she would soon remove and wash… I said nothing this time, however. I sat enjoying the tea and cake, too. For if the house, like an oyster, was at work on Betty, fining and disguising her with layer after minuscule layer of its own particular charm, then I suppose it had already begun a similar process on me.

I said, ‘My darling, I—I think you’re tired.’
A look of dismay came into her face. She moved her shoulder to shrug off my grip. My hand slid down her arm and caught at my grip instead. I said, ‘With everything that’s happened, it’s not surprising you’re confused. Your mother’s death—‘
‘But I’m not a bit confused,’ she said. ‘My mother’s death was what made me begin to see things clearly. To think about what I wanted, and didn’t want. To think about what you want, too.’
I tugged at her hand. ‘Come back to the sofa, will you? You’re tired.’
She pulled herself free, and her voice hardened. ‘Stop saying that! It’s all you ever say to me! Sometimes—sometimes I think you want to keep me tired, that you like me to be tired.’
They read it too: Capricious Reader, Caribousmom, Shelf Love, Regular Rumination, Book Gazing, Paperback Reader, Presenting Lenore, Back to Books, Savidge Reads, Jenny’s Books, Rhinoa’s Ramblings, She Reads Novels, somewhere i have never travelled, Page 247, Serendipity, You’ve GOTTA Read This, Stella Matutina, once, oh marvellous once, Reviews by Lola

(I’m sure I have missed many – let me know if yours is one of them, and as always I’ll be glad to add it.)


  1. How would you say this compares to the other novels you've read by her? I've heard a lot of mixed reviews.

  2. Amanda, it's definitely different from her others - but thanks to all those reviews I was expecting that already, which made me enjoy it more than if I had been taken my surprise. I'm not sure where I'd place it in my personal Sarah Waters scale, but I'd actually recommend this one to you for if you want to give her a second chance. It might work better for you exactly because it is so different!

  3. I've heard a lot of mixed reviews as well -- but I'm intrigued by the overall premise and style of it, enough to give it a chance also. Your review is really interesting as well!

  4. I may have to re-read this book at some time. I wasn't totally won over by it, but perhaps that's my fault.

    I've not completely gelled with Sarah Waters - the other book I've read by her, The Night Watch, I did enjoy but wasn't sure the reverse structure of the novel - while novel! - really worked, and for a novel of London life in the War, I'd go for Mary Renault's 'The Charioteer' every time. Interestingly of course also by a gay writer and concerning gay (male) couples, and I wonder if Waters, who'se clearly a very intelligent writer, was referencing it?

  5. Coffee and a Book Chick: This book certainly seems to divine opinions, but I do hope you'll give it a chance!

    Katherine Langrish: The Night Watch is one of my favourites of her (a close second to Fingersmith), so for me personally the structure did work. That final scene, with Kay saying "I thought I'd lost you" and the reader already knowing what was coming, absolutely broke my heart. But anyway, you've got me very very curious about The Charioteer! Waters has said before she has an interest in literature from that period, so it's quite possible that she was intentionally referencing it. Adding Renault to my wishlist!

  6. This was my first book of Waters and like you, I loved the atmosphere she created. The ambiguous ending worked well and left me thinking about the characters for days.

  7. I read this book a couple of weeks ago. I liked it, but didn't really love it. It left me perplexed, in a way. I'm waiting for Fingersmith to arrive to me through interlibrary loan, and I think I'll like that one better.

  8. This is the only Water's book that I have read and I did enjoy it, but unlike you, I wasn't happy with the ending. I couldn't help but think Faraday was involved with her demise. I did get a little bit scared reading this though.

  9. Oh how I love to read positive reviews of this book, when so many have been just "meh." I think your phrase "vertiginous change" captures so much of what's going on here - how people fear or welcome change, and the dissonance that creates. Thought it was very telling that Faraday was more invested in preserving the Ayres's way of life than Caroline or her mother. You're right that this kind of thing could come off as victim-blaming, but it's also very real - aspirational voting, for example, is alive & well in the US, people voting against their own best interests because they want to identify with the wealthy class. And loved the ending. Loved loved loved.

  10. Ha! I just started this not 5 minutes before I opened up my Google Reader and saw your review! I'll be back after I finish it.

  11. Everyone seems to love Waters' work. I'm not a huge fan of ambiguous endings, but I will admit I think they work perfectly for some books.

  12. you know what? you've done it again, and convinced me to read this instead of stubbornly snubbing it because of its lack of obvious lgbt themes. The class and gender commentary you described, combined with Water's subtle and evocative writing I know she's capable of, are definitely enough to allure me :D

  13. I loved this book too. The ambiguous ending worked for me and left me with a lot to think about. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

  14. I read about The Night Watch on She Reads Novels just a few days ago so although I've not read either book I'm coming to see the pattern in the way that Waters doesn't include many ends to plot points. I'm undecided whether that would annoy me or not but I think as it's become so popular I'll have to read it sometime.

  15. I do love Sarah Waters and subtle novels that present different viewpoints without passing judgement… hmm. (Plus, what a great title.)

  16. Great review, as always. I've just finished reading Sarah Waters' article you linked to - fascinating to see how the novel came into being! I remember reading The Franchise Affair but it's never stuck with me quite like Tey's The Daughter of Time. The Little Stranger sounds like an excellent read.

  17. I loved the ambiguity of the ending of this book but as a whole, the book didn't work for me.

  18. I've only read Sarah Water's Tipping the Velvet, and I already loved that book to pieces, lol. I've acquired all of her books and it's a matter of time I get to them! Thanks so much for the lovely review, Ana! As always, I enjoy reading your thoughts on the books you read. :)

  19. Yay your review makes me super excited that I got a bunch of Sarah Waters books at a library book sale!

    I'm so looking forward to this, but not until I'm in the mood for adult books.

  20. I'm skimming your review a bit Nymeth as I'm still making my way through the book but I really like what you said about Dr. Farraday - nostalgia. That's exactly the feeling his narrative evokes.

    I'm just at the part where he's taking Caroline to a doctor's dance. Interesting... Can't wait to see what happens next.

  21. This sounds like a really great book. I really must read it or something by Waters soon!!

  22. I have goosebumps after reading this review!! I'm so dying to read some more Sarah Waters!! I wish I didn't have so much going on already.

  23. This is sitting on my TBR pile for Carl's challenge! in fact I've picked it up once already, but wasn't in the mood for the slow pace so back it went on the pile. I'm still intending to read it asap, so I've read about half of your post (until you wrote about the ending, which I don't want to know yet!) and I'm very curious to see if I will like this or not. I usually like atmospheric books, so I'm hoping I will! Thanks for a really thoughtful review, as always, Nymeth.

  24. I KNEW your review would give me a whole different perspective of this masterpiece. I thought the surface was subtle, and the underdow deadly. So much going on just right under the surface. As far as the ending, I agree I would much rather have that ambiguity so I can needle it around in my head. I thought it was a little of both (supernatural and Farraday-invoked). Waters is so clever in this way...she makes you think and rethink and your attitudes and impressions morph the more you ponder. It has been like that with every thing I've read from her.

  25. I'm planning to read this next year once I settle the reading challenges for this year. I know I'm dying to read this along with many other books, but I have to wait... Thank you for the review, Ana. I like what Sandy is saying!

  26. I saw this book at the book store so many times, but I didn't pick it up. I don't really know why. But now, with your review, I think I will give it a try! Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!

  27. I loved the ending - there are so many possibilities like you said (although I know which one I favour - Faraday as the conductor for supernatural negative energy, the crack in the window sealed that for me). And I agree it must take so much strength to keep a novel like this running smoothly and making sense without seeming forced, it's a work of logical art.

    Interesting what you said about this novel not taking sides. I read a review somewhere else that thought this book very unkind, very determined to turn us against the upper class characters and take pleasure in their downfall. That's not something I felt, but I wondered how much my view was skewed by where I sit in the class system. I actually began to think of this book as a work concerned with the malevolence of the working class ambition, until I decided that view only comes thorugh if you think of Faraday as representative of his class. I kind of prefer to think of it as a novel about the dangerous side of social climbing/ society encouraging people to worship those above them vs attempts to gain better standards of living for all. I think what I like so much is that if you shift your perspective you get a different version of the book each time.

  28. Having just read a book about the master-servant relationship and class systems, I am intrigued with this theme you mention here. You always make me want to read the books you review!

  29. I really loved this book!! I found it so interesting, I read it months ago and still think about it. My review is here :) http://onceohmarvellousonce.blogspot.com/2010/04/book-review-little-stranger-by-sarah.html

  30. You know how I feel about this one but attending the Guardian Book Club on it and hearing Sarah Waters explain her reasoning made me appreciate it more. I still think it is dry in comparison to her other books but I like the nods to Rebecca.

    In my mind the advantage to the book is that it is so readily accessible and has a mainstream appeal that will lift SW out of the pigeon-hole I fear she has been placed.

  31. I do think perhaps this one was TOO subtle for me, especially with my expectations of it being a ghost story. Still, I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it, and I will have to check out that Tey novel you mentioned as it's one of hers I haven't read.

  32. I have been reading a lot of reviews on this book, and I think the negative ones have a lot to do with the fact that this book is very different than Waters' previous books. I think that if I realize that this book is going to be different, both in style and in subject matter, I will really enjoy it a lot more than if I compare it to her other works. I do have a copy of this one, and am looking forward to it a lot more after reading your review!

  33. I read this and liked it a lot -- I thought it was so interesting and certainly chilling at a few points, but so much more depth than the usual ghost stories. I of course favored the supernatural explanation because that's just much more fun. :)

  34. I think you managed to sum up my own thoughts about this book better than I did! I too enjoyed the historical aspects of it vastly more than I did the ghost-story ones, although I liked those too. Faraday's nostalgia for a class system as a working person was quite peculiar and something I'd never before read about in fiction - I'm fascinated by the erosion of British aristocracy in the wake of the wars, so this book was perfect for me. I also agree with you on the supernatural aspect; I was convinced that it was genuinely a ghost story, but I did appreciate that it was left open for us to draw our own conclusions.

  35. Avid Reader: That's what happened with me as well. It's funny how an ambiguous ending can make a story even more memorable.

    Alessandra, I also think you will!

    Vivienne: *spoilers warning* That's the interpretation I favour as well, which is why it unsettled me so much! But I liked it all the same - I thought it tied in with the book's themes very nicely.

    Emily: Yes, you're absolutely right - it does happen in real life, and I thought that Waters captured the process perfectly. Faraday's mix of resentment and desire to identify with the Ayres came across so well in his narration, and yet it was written about with subtlety too.

    Chris: I can't wait to hear what you think!

    Kathy: I don't like them if they feel gratuitous, like the author just didn't know how to end the story and so just left it open. But in this case, it did fit perfectly!

    Valentina: Hooray! I can't wait to hear how you like it :D

    Helen: I'm glad you did as well! There's definitely a lot to think about here.

    Charlie: Hmm... I actually don't think that's at all true of her books other than this one. The Night Watch moves backwards in time, but she does bring the story full-circle and gives it a solid ending. And the others all have pretty conventional endings. I'd recommend Fingersmith to start with - you can't go wrong with that one!

    Clare: The title is extremely interesting to think about once you finish the book. And more I cannot say :P

    Belle: Thank you! I did prefer The Daughter of Time to The Franchise Affair, but the latter was fascinating from a social and historical perspective.

    Stephanie: Aw, I'm sorry to hear it!

    Melody: I hope you'll love them all :D

    April: Hooray! I think you're going to love her. She's great at gender stuff (among many other things).

    Iliana: That was a very memorable scene, and after that the story certainly gets... interesting indeed :P I can't wait for your final thoughts!

    Amy: Yes you do! I'll make it my personal goal to make you read her before long :P

    Chris: Sorry things have been so busy lately, Chris :( I hope it gets better soon!

  36. I have some Waters on my book shelf but she intimidates me SOOOOO much!

  37. After reading (and loving) Fingersmith so much earlier this year, I was "shopping around" for the next Waters book to read. I finally settled on this one, and so I enjoyed your review (though I skipped any spoilerish stuff).

  38. I'm also just skimming your review for now since I already know I want to read this book. But I love your last two sentences: 'I always suspected Sarah Waters of being a genius... further proof.' Wonderful!

  39. What a great review, Ana! Reading it made me want to start rereading The Little Stranger right now. :) Waters really is such a wonderful writer, isn't she? I have actually been thinking of rereading Tipping the Velvet this autumn. It's my favorite of her novels.


  40. Susan: I didn't give away the ending - I'd never do that to you guys!

    Sandy, exactly! She made everything so nuanced and implied so much without outright saying anything. Oh Sarah Waters <3

    Alice: I think you'll like Sarah Waters a lot. Good luck with your challenges!

    Andreea: There's always next time ;)

    Jodie: My own view might be skewed as well, but I definitely also didn't feel that unkindness at all. I thought that there was some relish in what was happening to the Ayres in Faraday's narration, but that was because of his own personal feelings for them. It's always tricky with a first person narrator to show things outside what they see and feel, but I think that Waters managed splendidly. For me, his hidden hostility was towards the Ayres as a family (because they had what he wanted), and not towards them as representatives of a class he wanted to see destroyed - quite the contrary. I also felt that Faraday was too individualised for the novel to be making any general statements about the working class. I love what you said about the dangerous side of people worshipping their "superiors" and wanting to occupy their privileged place rather than wanting the system to change altogether. For me, that's a huge part of what was going on here.

    Care: Ooh - what book was that?

    Elise: Thank you for your link, and I'm so sorry I forgot it!

    Claire: I can see myself having been disappointed too if I'd read it right after it came out. Having been warned by you and Waters that it was very unlike her other novels really helped me appreciate it more.

    Lenore: The Tey novel is both disturbing and extremely interesting. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it!

    Zibilee: Yes, I definitely agree. It's good to be prepared for something a little different.

    Daphne: What I like so much about the ending is that all the explanations you can come up with have very disturbing implications - only of different types.

    Meghan: I'm not surprised to hear that coming from a history lover like you :P She really nailed the atmosphere and the social tensions of the period.

    Christina, why? I think you'd love her!

    Jenners: Bear in mind that this is completely different from Fingersmith! Not that that's a bad thing, of course. I wouldn't want any author to write the same book twice, even if it's a book I happen to worship :P

    Marieke, I hope you read it soon - I'd love to hear your thoughts!

    Tiina: She really, really is. My own favourite is Fingersmith, but I love them all to bits.

  41. This is the one and only Sarah Waters book I've read and whilst I loved the slow menacing aspect to the unexplained goings on at the Hall, overall I only liked this book and didn't love it. I've been told though I may enjoy some of Waters' other work more so will hopefully get round to some them soon.

  42. I just finished this one myself and REALLY enjoyed it. I'm so glad I finally read Sarah Waters! I'll be reading the rest of her books, for sure.

  43. This kick-started my Sarah Waters obsession! I actually read Fingersmith years before but didn't love it as much. But I've loved everything else since and so I'm going to re-read it again. I actually rather liked the ending of this The Little Stranger.

  44. Am I terrible that I want to pester you about how this compared (in terms of how much you liked it) to Fingersmith?  I’ve been seeing this one around a lot lately and it seems that it isn’t a favorite.  Or maybe I’ve just seen the less favorable posts?  I wonder if the unsettling nature of the ending has anything to do with people’s “eh” posts.  I don’t have this one but I do have Affinity on the shelf.  It’s in line with allllll the others I’d like to read.  Have you read that one?

  45. Excellent, excellent review! I particularly liked your take on the class and gender hierarchies that make Dr Faraday and Caroline's relationship uneasy. I just finished rereading this a few weeks ago, and for as much as I've not been a fan of what I've previously read of hers, I LOVED this book. Loved it. Damn near perfect for me.

  46. Fantastic review! So glad you enjoyed this one. I also loved the point of view (and I thought the ending was great...although I know some people disagree with that!)Thanks for the link love :)

  47. This means that you are all caught up with Waters. Whatever will you do now!

  48. I read Fingersmith a few months ago and loved it. I plan to read all of Waters' work and so this one is certainly on my list!


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