The Little Stranger
By Sarah Waters. Riverhead. 466pages. $26.95.
A reviewer probably shouldn't admit this, but while making my way through Sarah Waters' new novel, “The Little Stranger,” I'd sometimes forget to take notes, so hypnotized was I by the spell of this completely absorbing book.
“The Little Stranger” is a ghost story full of mystery, but it wasn't simply a matter of finding out what happened next; I wanted to linger in that fictional world.
Waters' ease with period detail is on display in “The Little Stranger,” set in the English countryside just after World War II. When a character, for example, opens his liquor cabinet, this small act evokes time and place: “I found a flask of brandy, and some duty sloe gin, and a small, sealed keg of prewar Polish spirit I had once won at a charity raffle and never had the courage to try.” I especially like that charity raffle – can't you picture a cheerless church basement?
The novel is narrated by a Dr. Faraday, a middle-aged bachelor with a modest medical practice in Warwickshire. One day he is summoned to the decaying local manor house, Hundreds Hall, where a parlor maid is complaining of a stomachache. It's not Faraday's first visit to the Hall; as a child he attended an Empire Day fete at the manor – then in its glory days.
Returning decades later, Faraday is shocked to find the hall in total disrepair. The family has seen better days, too, and their money is clearly running out. Worse yet, there is a sinister presence in the house, and as Faraday is drawn into the confidences of the Ayres family, weird things start to happen: Strange marks appear on the ceiling and walls, several small fires break out, though no cause can be determined. This might seem like generic haunted-house stuff, but Waters handles it with great skill.
We learn that widowed Mrs. Ayres had a daughter, Susan, who died of diphtheria in childhood, and when S's begin to appear scrawled on the walls, the reader, along with the Ayres, begins to suspect the child's ghost. But Dr. Faraday insists, maddeningly, on finding a rational explanation for everything.
Waters delivers a real shock at the end – though she slyly leaves some ambiguity intact. But the pleasures of “The Little Stranger” aren't those of your garden-variety suspense novel. They lie, instead, with the author's uncanny ability to paint her characters and their world and to seduce the reader into following along with her.