four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
41-July-Aug-2009
By: 
Sarah Waters
user_rating: 
0

A-The Little StrangerSarah Waters is best known for her lesbian-themed Victorian novels, Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, and Fingersmith. Both Fingersmith and The Night Watch ( 4 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2006), her fourth novel, were short-listed for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize.

The Story: Set in post–World War II Britain, The Little Stranger delves into new territory with an ominous and spooky tale of ghosts and family secrets. When Dr. Faraday is summoned to a local manor house in Warwickshire to tend to an ailing maid, he encounters a disturbing sight. Hundreds Hall, the once-grand Georgian estate he remembers from boyhood, is now a crumbling heap, ravaged by a dwindling family fortune and two World Wars. As the doctor delves deeper into the lives of the troubled Ayres family and witnesses a string of unnerving occurrences, he finds himself struggling to reconcile his scientific beliefs with a sinister force that has no rational explanation.
Riverhead. 480 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 1594488800

Salon.com 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Waters has boldly reassigned all these gothic motifs [of the traditional ghost story] from their usual Freudian duties to another detail entirely: The Little Stranger is about class, and the unavoidable yet lamentable price paid when venerable social hierarchies begin to erode. … Waters has managed to write a near-perfect gothic novel while at the same time confidently deploying the form into fresher territory." Laura Miller

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] marvelous and truly spooky historical novel. … As a strange spot on an old and mouldering ceiling takes on a sinister appearance and bodies begin to accumulate, Waters’s precise and chilling prose lets Dr. Faraday have his way with the story." Clea Simon

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"[Waters has the] uncanny ability to paint her characters and their world and to seduce the reader into following along with her. Hundreds Hall is a pretty gloomy place, but I was thrilled to spend time there, under the guidance of this supremely gifted storyteller." Tom Beer

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"One of the best tricks in Waters’ authorial bag is her Hitchcockian gift for making mundane household occurrences—spots on the wall, a lost pair of cufflinks—turn into intimations of evil. … If you want a ghost story that creeps up your spine, The Little Stranger delivers."Mary Ann Gwinn

Telegraph (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"There are not many overtly scary scenes, but the knowledge that something nasty is around the corner lends the narrative a compelling sense of unease. At the same time, the richness of Waters’s writing ensures that the air of thickening dread is very thick indeed." John Preston

Chicago Sun-Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The attentive reader will catch on to Faraday’s intriguing self-deception long before he does. … Waters writes with great insight about what it means to hold out in an age of progress." Edward Champion

Critical Summary

At its core, The Little Stranger is an old-fashioned ghost story, complete with spooky house, eccentric inhabitants, an air of general madness and malcontent, and a narrator who may not be as mild-mannered as he seems. What elevates this novel from the crowded genre is Waters’s ability to evoke the subtleties of the past as she skillfully weaves tension and dread into each paragraph. The reviewer from Newsday likened this tale to the psychological classic The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Perhaps the critic from the Telegraph (who voiced only a very minor complaint about the ending) summed up the reviewers’ opinions best of all by hailing this novel as a genuinely creepy story "guaranteed to make anyone with a pulse gibber in fright."

Also by the Author

The Night Watch (2006): In postwar London in 1947, four people reel from the aftereffects of battle. As the book moves backward in time through the war, the intimate connections between these characters make The Night Watch less a novel of bombs and heroism than a glimpse into lives brought together and torn asunder by war.