In a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to a patient at lonely Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the Georgian house, once grand and handsome, is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, its owners – mother, son and daughter – struggling to keep pace. 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 entwined with his.
Now, just a quick heads up in case you hadn’t realized…but there might be some spoilers in this review, simply because this book has left me somewhat baffled and I think I’m gonna need to do some theorizing.
I’m not overly familiar with Sarah Waters’ work, having only previously read Affinity while I was at university. I read The Little Stranger based on the enthusiastic recommendation of a friend who, incidentally, had read this while also at university. I grabbed a beat up old copy from a really cute second bookstore in Glasgow and once the opportunity arose, I delved right in, eager to be transported to a bygone era in which afternoon tea was still very much a ‘thing’.
In terms of the written style, I cannot fault Sarah at all. She gives Dr Faraday – the narrator – such a distinct voice and I think when an author can successfully pen an entire novel from the perspective of someone of not only a different era and profession, but of a different gender too, then I think their talent as a writer really shines through. I found myself completely and utterly absorbed in Faraday’s story, almost as though he were addressing me directly in his recounting of this tragic tale.
Furthermore, Sarah’s talent as a writer was, for me, showcased even further in my immediate dislike for Faraday. As the book is written from a first person narrative, a reader quickly gains a good sense of his personality…and my god, what a prick! I find his character patronizing beyond belief. He counters Caroline and Mrs Ayres’ claims with statements such as “You’re just tired!” and, rather creepily, he constantly refers to Caroline, who at one point is his fiancee, as a “good girl” whenever she agrees with him or goes along with his preferred course of action. His character makes me skin crawl and the shame he initially feels at his developing feelings towards Caroline – because of her eccentricity and looks – only serves to further my dislike for him. A writer who can render a character into an actual person, one who a reader can muster such strong feelings for, is, for want of a better word, gifted.
Let’s talk about the actual plot, though. The Little Stranger introduces the reader to Hundreds Hall, a once stately home that is now collapsing under the weight of financial pressure and natural decay. Faraday, on a routine visit, befriends the Ayres family and soon becomes a staple part of their everyday existence and vice versa. As the weeks progress, however, it soon becomes apparent to Faraday that something more sinister is afoot. Roderick Ayres begins having ‘delusions’ and ‘hallucinations’, all while mysterious burn marks appear around his bedroom. Betty, the housemaid, speaks of “a bad thing” being in the house. Mrs Ayres speaks of her first, long-dead daughter after childish scribbles suddenly start manifesting on the walls, convinced that she’s returned. Caroline, initially dubious about their claims, soon begins questioning happenings around the house too.
The question is, though, is any of it real? Is there anything inherently supernatural about these happenings or, as I personally suspect, are these happenings a result of a somewhat obsessive and unreliable narrator? The tragic ending is left open to interpretation…but here are my thoughts.
I haven’t quite ironed out all the kinks in my theory, but I think Faraday is at the center of most of the events. I think he takes advantage of Roderick’s illness as a means of achieving his ultimate goal; ownership of Hundreds Hall. He seems to have a deep-rooted obsession with Hundreds Hall, which becomes apparent in the opening chapter where he’s a child and at a fete, being hosted by the Ayres, with his mother. Having gained access to the house, he chips away at a decorative acorn he sees on some plaster board for no reason other than the fact he wants to “possess” a part of the house. This obsession is further displayed when he becomes angered by Caroline’s reluctance to live in the house when they talk about their post-wedding plans and he then becomes downright furious when she decides to sell up towards the end of the book. In the final chapter (fuck it, I’ve already mentioned spoiler alerts), we find him sweeping the now-derelict Hall three years after the death of Caroline, because he cannot bring himself to relinquish ownership of his keys…
…which leads me to the part of the novel where I began to suspect (rather belatedly, but cut me some slack, I’m not a detective!) that Faraday had played a hand in these events. At the inquest into Caroline’s death, Betty claims she heard Caroline exclaim “You!” before her fall from the second floor landing, indicating that she had encountered somebody that she knew. When we learn that Faraday was snoozing in his car but two miles away (and ‘dreams’ of walking up Hundreds Hall’s driveway) and is in possession of his own set of keys…well, it becomes apparent who “You!” was, especially as all this follows Faraday’s erratic and obsessive behaviour. In his narrative, he comes across as just as puzzled and distressed as anyone else following the death, but the fact that this is in first person narrative automatically makes him an unreliable narrator.
Maybe I should be a detective…
So, I’ve concluded that Faraday is pretty much Caroline’s killer, but what of the other ‘happenings’?
My conclusion regarding Caroline’s death has led me to believe that Faraday plays a role in nearly all of the supposed ‘ghostly’ events in the book. Following Roderick’s breakdown, which has probably been brought on by belated shell shock and the pressures of trying to run a declining estate, I feel Faraday perhaps takes advantage of the nervous tension running rife throughout the Hall.
But is the role he plays in these events subconcious? While discussing the ‘poltergeist’ activity with his colleague, Dr Seeley, Seeley suggests an idea derived from a popular school of thought regarding poltergeist activity; perhaps the activity has arisen from the unconscious part of someone’s brain, the negative emotions they generally keep hidden manifesting in the form of destructive activity. This theory of mine is given weight by a scene in which Faraday returns to his home and, upon going to bed, imagines himself travelling through the Hall and into Caroline’s bedroom (creepy anyway, but whatever). Incidentally, a lot of the activity occurs at night. Is Faraday somehow projecting his subconscious thoughts and feelings upon Hundreds Hall and its residents, driving them to brink of insanity? It seems a credible theory when we take into account the Ayres family were mostly fine until Faraday rocked up…
Also, is Faraday the “little stranger”, a reference, perhaps, to the young boy we meet in the first chapter who’s so desperate for a slice of the Ayres’ life?
Eugh! So many questions!
Anyway, while I enjoyed this book and have delighted in theorizing, I found it to be quite slow moving, which meant the first half of the book took me a good three or four days to get through. However, once “shit hits the fan”, it’s a book that is quite literally unputdownable (shut up, it’s a word). I devoured the final 200 or so pages in one lengthy sitting.
A great read! Bravo! *claps*
Rating: 4 out of 5
Song: Mutemath’s You are mine
This book is available on Amazon in both e-reader and paperback format.