Sarah Waters’ fifth novel, The Little Stranger, opens in rural Warwickshire in 1947. It is a strange time. War is over, but its effects are still being felt, and the world is changing.
Before the war Hundreds House was a grand place. Dr Faraday remembers visiting as a small boy when his mother was one of a veritable army who ensured things ran smoothly.
But when he is called out to see a sick serving girl he finds things much changed. Colonel Ayres, the head of the house, is dead, leaving his widow, a son, who was badly injured in the war, and a daughter. The army of staff is reduced to a single maid and a charwoman, and the family is fighting a losing battle to keep home and finances intact.
For a long time that seemed to be all that there was, and only the quality of the writing and my faith in Sarah Waters kept me turning the pages.
Then finally the real story began.
The first significant incident happens when the new owners of a neighbouring estate visit. They are ill-mannered, mocking the old-fashioned house and hospitality and boasting of the modernity that they will bring to their own home. But one moment that evening will shock them and change the course of their lives.
Was the cause supernatural, or was it something more prosaic?
That question repeats, as strange things keep happening and the Ayres family crumbles.
The Little Stranger is many things. Yes it is, as billed, a ghost story, and though the haunting is not sustained, there are moments of fear, pain and grief as vivid as anything I have read. It is also a wonderful human drama and a compelling portrait of a country and a class system on the brink of change.
What it lacks though is the colour and flamboyance that made Sarah Waters’ earlier novels so beguiling.
That is in large part down to the narrator. Dr Faraday is a dull an unimaginative middle-aged man, who clings to rational explanations for everything. It’s an interesting – and maybe brave – choice and it is a measure of Sarah Waters’ skill that she makes this work as well as she does.
And there is a twist. Not an obvious jolt, but something much more subtle that changes the way that you look at characters, incidents and possibilities.
It made me want to go back and look at things again, and this could well be a book that has much more to offer with subsequent readings.
And the ending? It’s subtle and could be read in more than one way.
The Little Stranger, though maybe not entirely sucessful, was an interesting path for Sarah Waters to try, and I am intrigued to see where she goes next.