The Little Stranger
By: Sarah Waters
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
In a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to see a patient at lonely Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the once grand house is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its garden choked with weeds. All around, the world is changing, and the family is struggling to adjust to a society with new values and rules.
Roddie Ayres, who returned from World War II physically and emotionally wounded, is desperate to keep the house and what remains of the estate together for the sake of his mother and his sister, Caroline. Mrs. Ayres is doing her best to hold on to the gracious habits of a gentler era and Caroline seems cheerfully prepared to continue doing the work a team of servants once handled, even if it means having little chance for a life of her own beyond Hundreds.
But as Dr. Faraday becomes increasingly entwined in the Ayreses’ lives, signs of a more disturbing nature start to emerge, both within the family and in Hundreds Hall itself. And Faraday begins to wonder if they are all threatened by something more sinister than a dying way of life, something that could subsume them completely.
I read this book around the time it was long- and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize but for some reason never got around to writing my thoughts on it; I’m not sure if this was because I was not book blogging yet or because I wasn’t book blogging regularly at this point. In any case, it made the perfect candidate for a re-read this year 😉 This book is part of the A Year in Re-Reading: a 2014 Reading Challenge that I am participating in.
The Little Stranger really has a sense of setting, set in post-war England. It’s a bit reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (review) with the general ode to the decline of the upper class with their formidable estates, the culture of the turn of the century, the gradual changes amongst the classes (and whatever else that remained the same). It’s a time of change, and yet through the Ayres and the Hundred Hall there is a sense of trying to adjust and keep with the old ways however they could.
I remember the first time reading it that it was a little unexpected in that it’s quite a slow burn, but this second read really highlighted that fact for me. I’m not sure if it was my mood at the time that I was reading it, but it really took a while before we get to each major plot development. I normally don’t mind this sort of pacing, as the spaces in between are filled with Dr. Faraday slowly becoming a part of the Ayres’ lives, but it’s hard to keep focused especially as I came to realise that Dr. Faraday as a character is rather meh; there’s nothing really defining or fascinating about the character.
On a related note, I don’t know why I thought Dr. Faraday was in his 30s the first time I read the book; re-reading the book now, I think I’d put him somewhere around his 50s? The timeline makes sense, especially as Roderick and Caroline weren’t born when he first visited the Hundreds Hall.
The mystery about Hundreds Hall and the Ayres remains as baffling as the first time around. Roderick clearly has some PTSD going on from his experiences in the war, but the way it’s presented has that Gothic, eerie tone to it, like something else is afoot. It makes you wonder, really. The other strange happenings around the house, the gradual descents of both Mrs. Ayres and Caroline is just sad, as though they could not possibly and completely adjust with the times and were left in limbo with all of their problems. Again, the presentation makes it unsettling, like there are ghosts around the place (as Betty keeps implying throughout the novel), but ultimately what I took away from this novel was a symbolic decline of their upper class status and place in society.
Overall, The Little Stranger didn’t hold up with the second read. You really have to be in a particular mood to read this novel, but I appreciate it’s quiet examination of the post-war period and its effects on a changing society.