“‘There’ll be tricks, tonight. I can sense it.'” – The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

July 5, 2009 at 3:28 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books)

stranger Rural Britain just after the Second World War…an English country house falling prey to entropy…the Ayres family, consisting of a widowed mother and her two adult children, the last of the line, huddled around a fireplace in a desperate attempt to stay warm…

Dr. Faraday gets drawn into the lives of the Ayreses when he goes to Hundreds Hall, the family’s ancestral home, to treat a maid who has fallen ill. He subsequently offers to help Roderick Ayres, a former RAF pilot, cope with a leg injury sustained in a crash that occurred during combat. (Rod was lucky to have survived the crack-up; his navigator was not so fortunate.)

The struggle to maintain their stately dwelling, its grounds, and its farming operation is driving the Ayres family deeply into debt. Mrs. Ayres, her daughter Caroline, and Roderick all pitch in, but the responsibility for keeping things afloat falls chiefly on Roderick. Having barely recovered from his war injuries and a subsequent breakdown, he is feeling the strain acutely. As for Mrs Ayres, her grande dame ways seem sadly anachronistic, given the family’s severely straitened circumstances.

As part of an effort to maintain their position in local society, the Ayreses marshal their meager resources and throw a party for their friends and other gentry in the village. The evening begins well but ends disastrously. This seems to be the moment when the decline of the family’s fortune become inevitable – and irreversible.

The struggle at Hundreds Hall was being replicated in many country estates in postwar Britain. But there is something else happening at Hundreds…something decidedly sinister.

In The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters has crafted a subtle depiction of  the toll that stress and loss of hope can take on the human psyche. She made me care deeply about the Ayres family, all three flawed but fundamentally decent people. I also cared about Dr. Faraaday, an earnest if unimaginitive person, who gets in over his head when he becomes embroiled in the dire situation at Hundreds.

I have one reservation concerning The Little Stranger, and it has to do with the  author’s technique. The story is told in the first person by Dr Faraday. At several points in the novel, he recounts events that have occurred when he himself was not present. In these instances, Waters is careful to have Faraday stipulate his source. But in my opinion, he describes these scenes in more detail than anyone who wasn’t there would be able to do. Limited point of view is, of course, one of the chief restrictions that first person narration imposes on a writer. That being the case, why do authors choose this method of storytelling? I think one reason is the sense of immediacy that’s conveyed when the narrator is also an actor in the drama. Despite the problem I noted above, the device works beautifully in this novel.

I have high praise for Sarah Waters’s skill in crafting dialog and creating characters that are idiosyncratic, even eccentric, yet at the same time believable and sympathetic. She also knows how to build suspense. The Little Stranger is 463 pages long. At about the half way point, it became a real page turner for me. I was consumed with curiosity about the ultimate fate of Hundreds Hall and its inhabitants, intertwined as they both were with Dr. Faraday’s own hopeless longing.


In this video (which contains no spoilers), Sarah Waters talks about the authors who have influenced her writing and the type of research that she did for The Little Stranger:


  1. Best books of 2009: my own favorites « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Daniyal Mueenuddin It’s Beginning To Hurt by James Lasdun Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters The Birthday Present by Barbara Vine The Northern Clemency by Philip […]

  2. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Everyman – Philip Roth Hotel Du Lac – Anita Brookner By the Lake – John McGahern The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters Love and Summer – Wm Trevor Unfinished Desires – Gail Godwin Heart […]

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