The Novels of Sarah Waters
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The Little Stranger
"The #1 book of 2009...Several sleepless nights are guaranteed."—Stephen King, Entertainment Weekly
One postwar summer in his home of rural Warwickshire, Dr. Faraday, the son of a maid who has built a life of quiet respectability as a country physician, is called to a patient at lonely Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the Georgian house, once impressive and handsome, is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, the clock in its stable yard permanently fixed at twenty to nine. Its owners—mother, son, and daughter—are struggling to keep pace with a changing society, as well as with conflicts of their own. But are the Ayreses haunted by something more sinister than a dying way of life? Little does Dr. Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become intimately entwined with his.
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169 of 183 found the following review helpful:
Atmospheric Gothic taleApr 10, 2009
By Z Hayes
"The Little Stranger" marks a departure for novelist Sarah Waters, who has also written works like "Affinity" and "Tipping the Velvet" which had lesbian themes in them. "The Little Stranger" does not have such themes, instead it is a well-constructed, beautifully-written Gothic tale that focuses on a crumbling great house in the English countryside. It is post WW II in Britain, and the war has wrought a lot of changes in society - many aristocratic and rich families have seen a decline in their fortunes, and one such family is the Ayers' family - Mrs Ayres is a dignified middle-aged woman who despite her rather impoverished circumstances still holds on to an old way of life, her 27-year-old daughter Caroline is an unattractive spinster who is content to traipse about the countryside in plain clothes with her well-loved dog Gyp, and her 24-year-old brother Roderick is a battle-scarred war vet who reluctantly finds himself taking over Hundreds Hall, the family estate.
Quite by accident, our narrator, Dr Faraday finds himself getting acquainted with the family when he is called in to treat the family's maid, 14-year-old Betty, who is prone to fanciful thoughts and dreams up phantom ailments. Dr Faraday finds himself drawn to the Ayres' not only because his mother was once a nursery maid at Hundreds, but also because he has not outgrown his childhood fascination with the crumbling manor. When Roderick begins to exhibit strange behavior, and starts rambling about poltergeist-like activity in the house, Dr Faraday's initial cynicism is put to the test by the unfolding of more peculiar and malevolent events at the house.
This is not a traditional horror story, but more of a psychological thriller that takes its time unfolding [about a hundred pages into the book in fact], and the suspense builds up slowly yet surely, rewarding patient readers with a complex novel that is populated with well-delineated characters. It would be doing this book disservice if it were to be labelled as purely a tale of the supernatural, for it is much more than that - the book also explores class distinctions as the Ayres' represent an upper class family fallen on hard times, yet still cling on to the old way of life, keeping a maid for appearance's sake, and refusing to let go of the house, even as it drains the last ounces of their financial resources and physical strength.
"The Little Stranger" is also about the dynamics of human relationships - of the complex ties between parent and children [Roderick laments that he has been a constant source of disappointment to his mother], the bonds between siblings, and of human yearnings [for social acceptance, affection etc].
This is not a wisp of a novel but a hefty read, yet I found myself compelled to finish it within two days. I'd rate this as my favorite of Sarah Waters' work because I happen to love highly atmospheric novels and "The Little Stranger" exceeds my expectations on that account. I'd also recommend works like "The Sisters" by Poppy Adams, "The Thirteenth Tale" by Diane Setterfield, and "The Forgotten Garden" by Kate Morton.
68 of 76 found the following review helpful:
A ghostly novel of in-betweensMar 28, 2009
By Lilly Flora
"by Lilo Drandoff"
I have very, very mixed feelings about this book, "The Little Stranger." On the one hand I deeply appreciate the excellent writing and planning which went into it and I read through it as fast as I could. On the other hand there never seemed to be an ultimate climatic moment in the book and when I finished it I had the feeling that something was missing. After much thought I am still unable to identify this something.
This will be billed as a historica suspense/ghost story and while that is an accurate description of the book it is really a novel of people and places stuck in-betweens. It is shortly after WW2 and in England the minor aristocracy are going through changes. This is particularly true for the Ayres family who live in the once stately Hundreds hall. But now most of the money is gone, the land is being sold off piece by piece and the hall itself is turning into a crumbling ruin. Living there are Mrs. Ayres and her two grown up children, who aren't adapting very well to the new, more democratic world. With one maid left who still wears the uniform the Ayres are firmly stuck in place between the pre-war world and the post war one.
Into their lives comes our narrator, Dr, Faraday, a bachelor in between youth and middle age and between his roots as a poor boy whose mother was a nursemaid at Hundreds and the country doctor he is now. Quite by accident he is called to see to a medical situation at the hall and slowly begins to become friends with the family. Mrs. Ayres, a woman physically barely on the brink of being elderly but mentally lost in the past, Roderick, her son and lord of the manor who was badly injured in the war and Caroline, the unfeminine, plain speaking daughter.
Faraday seems to be caught between resentment at the Ayres hanging on to a dead life style which makes him beneath them and jealously at their (crumbling, but once grand) social position. Either way he can't tear himself away from the Hall. And then strange things begin to happen.
The rest goes the way of a typical ghost story-strange happenings, both annoying and violent, a sense of dread, of the House being alive, as well as a more intellectual scoffing at al matters supernatural. Through it all Faraday is our window into the world at Hundreds Hall.
Like I said earlier the writing in this book is very good. I pretty much raced through it. But for some reason the ending left me very dissatisfied-maybe because this isn't a grand, story kind of novel but more about an strange episode in an otherwise ordinary man's life.
I've only read two other Sarah Waters' novels but "The Little Stranger" is very similar in atmosphere to Affinity-both are gloomy books that always seem to be in decaying gray environment.
Four stars. If you like this you'll probably want to read The Thirteenth Tale: A Novel Or vice versa.
19 of 19 found the following review helpful:
first rate psychological thriller (some spoilers)May 29, 2009
By book kitty
**SPOILERS**This is a haunting & frightening story about how one's childhood desires & expectations never truly diminish, in fact if left unchecked, they can grow to such a horrifying proportion that they take on a life & soul of their own.
I read this book twice, the first time around with the viewpoint that this was indeed, an old fashioned ghost story, with the House as the main character.
After the surprise (at least to me) reveal as to the identity of the person responsible for the disturbance at the Hall, I read the book again. Certain events took on a malevolent new meaning. The narrator's childhood memory of using a knife to gouge out a small souvenir from the home & his mother's horrified reaction provided a frightening foreshadowing to the escalating violence that would ensue. Let's just say "Thou shall not covet" is a commandment you really ought to follow.
As for the other main characters, they each played a part in the ultimate destruction of their lives. I felt the most sympathy for Gyp, he alone was innocent in the part he played in the story. I also felt for Caroline, when she realizes the Dr. never intends to take her away from the Hall, she make a valiant (but tragically undermined) effort to save herself.
The rich & darkly vivid writing slowly draws you into the world of Hundreds Hall; you can sense the decayed splendor that the family is surrounded & trapped by.
If you enjoy this book, I would also recommend The Thirteenth Tale & Jane-Emily. Jane-Emily: And Witches' ChildrenThe Thirteenth Tale: A Novel
81 of 98 found the following review helpful:
The fall of the House of AyresApr 12, 2009
By Pippa Lee
It is curious how one can do things by the book and still miss the target. "The Little Stranger" is such a case. It is promoted as a ghost story and it has all the elements for it: a character living in the past, another one going mad, and of course, the rational one. There is the isolated old mansion falling in disrepair, with furniture coming alive and writing appearing on the walls. However, by the time I got to the end of the book, the first thing that came to my mind was "So what?" And it's a pity because Sarah Waters is a talented writer. This is the first time I've read one of her books and her gift for description took me away. Waters spends pages and pages describing Hundreds Hall with precise detail to recall its former grandeur and to capture its current dilapidation. In this mansion with leaky ceilings and musty carpets lives the Ayres family: Mrs. Ayres, a widow who longs for the old days of her family glory; her son, Roderick, a veteran who is still suffering both physically and mentally from his war injuries, and his sister, Caroline, a young woman who desires a life of her own. Into this small circle, comes Dr. Faraday, who becomes the family doctor but his role as their confidant stirs up mixed feelings in him.
Waters moves the story at a leisurely pace, tarrying with descriptions of the grounds, nooks and crannies of Hundred Halls. She spends 3/4 of the book to build up a convincing but somewhat predictable ghost story and then in the last quarter, she introduces an alternate theory to explain all the strange going-ons in the Hall. At first I took this Mr. Hyde-like explanation as a feeble attempt to justify the ghost's procrastination. It took 25 years for it to show up to haunt the family. But as I kept reading and realized where the story was going, I began to lose interest. Waters probably introduced this theory to provide for an unexpected final twist but it did not quite work out. It came too late into the story and without the author's having built a case for it, it struck me as forced and unconvincing. Worst of all, it undermined what the story had accomplished in the first 3/4 of the book and by the time I reached the ending, I have stopped caring for the characters and the whole plot has fallen flat too.
It is unfortunate that "The Little Stranger" doesn't live up to its expectations because the writing is very good. Sometimes I think this book could have been better without its supernatural elements. But then, that's just a wishful thought. Sarah Waters is a gifted writer, and I hope her next book will be a much better rounded one. As for this ghost story, my final grades are: four stars for the writing; two stars for the plot.
12 of 12 found the following review helpful:
Compelling psychological novel of class and changeJan 31, 2010
By Kristen Hannum
Half way through this book, about midnight last night, I found myself amazed by the author's skill in keeping me compulsively reading EVEN THOUGH NOTHING WAS HAPPENING. This is smart and polished writing. The Little Stranger is incredibly evocative, well researched, insightful - a great psychological study and sociological analysis in the skin of a ghost story.
Publishers these days aim to please book groups with questions for discussion at the end - the last book I read was Sarah's Key, a pleasant, unchallenging read that hardly needed a key for discussion. I'm not sure what there would be to discuss there; it's that straightforward. Not so for The Little Stranger. This book cries out for a readers' key, beginning with:
Is this a ghost story?
Is it a book about politics? Psychology?
Is the narrator reliable?
Who is `the little stranger'? Is that a good title for the book? Why `stranger'?
Did Caroline figure out the truth, in the book in her father's library?
How is the party a turning point?
Is the last line of the book key?
Is it possible that our subconscious can do evil - or good - in the world? Subconscious implies that we're not aware of it, that it's not `on purpose,' right?
Are we responsible for our unconsciousness?
What makes a book scary? There are two paranormal explanations for what is happening at the house. Which is scarier?
Were there sympathetic aspects to the disappearing class system with its strict class divisions? Were the Ayres sympathetic characters? What aspects of class division are still with us?
Why did Waters begin her book with Faraday's visit to Hundreds Hall as a boy? Was what he did as a boy a foreshadowing?
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