The Little Stranger
Sarah Waters
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Buy *The Little Stranger* by Sarah Waters online

The Little Stranger
Sarah Waters
Riverhead Trade
528 pages
May 2010
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Somewhat of a departure for Waters (specifically the outward lack of lesbian characters), her latest novel plunges us into the grand, decaying estate of Hundreds Hall, deep in the county of Warwickshire. Our window into this world comes via Dr. Faraday, a local country doctor who throughout the story is similarly repelled then entranced by the strange, aristocratic Ayres Family, who are seemingly at odds with their crumbling-down house.

As the good Doctor looks back at his childhood, those last grand years for Hundreds Hall and the Empire day fete, the Hall has already started its long, slow decline. Now only the family matriarch, Mrs. Ayres, and her two children, Caroline and Roderick, reside, the three locked in self-enforced seclusion along with Betty, their maid, and their cook, Mrs. Bazeley.

When Faraday makes his first visit to the house after more than thirty years, ostensibly to look in on Betty and help Roddie seek some relief from his war wounds, he finds a vastly different state of affairs from that day in 1919 when he was in awe of the grand estate. Roddie, Caroline and their mother have withdrawn from the world, the estate itself no longer the majestic house with handsome brick faces and cool marble passages, each filled with marvelous things.

Although the Hall seems doomed to decay within its chipped and cracked stucco, the floorboards humped and creaking, the threadbare rugs and a sagging sofa, Faraday offers the Ayres a measure of hope, strangely comforted by their illusory sense of entitlement and the cool, fragrant spaces of Hundreds Hall: “the light in it held like wine in a glass.”

The Doctor, however, still can’t help feeling a flicker of impatience and the faintest stirring of a dark dislike for these stubborn people intent to make fun of the servants while the vast rooms of the Hall deteriorate around them. When a dinner party hosted by Mrs. Ayres goes horribly wrong, there comes a creeping chill and a dampness, and the family find themselves facing an ever-increasing set of tragedies.

The house itself seems to rebel against all who inhabit her: dark smudges appear suddenly on doors and the ceilings, “queer scorch marks that looked like burns”; Roddie’s room goes up in flames; and then there are his delusions, and his ever-increasing panic attacks. Something is loose in the house, “some sort of ravenous, frustrated energy, perhaps with Caroline at its heart.” Faraday will stop at nothing in his efforts to conquer Caroline and take control of this doomed estate, even as his ill-fated efforts to marry into aristocracy take a turn for the worse.

Possessing all of the trappings of a gothic ghost story - the disintegrating mansion, a character who goes mad, another who commits suicide, a little girl who was once lost but magically appears - Waters' novel clearly taps into issues of class. A dense and detailed read, The Little Stranger is mostly a reflection of a doomed family playing gaily at gentry life while the house around them collapses like a fragile pyramid of cards.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2009

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