The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

I’ve wanted to read a Sarah Waters novel for a while, so when The Little Stranger was chosen for my book group at work I was really pleased. I was promised a creepy old house, spooky goings on and shivers down my spine and I wasn’t disappointed, although the story was more than the sum of its parts.

The story begin with the impressions of protagonist and narrator, Doctor Faraday as a child taking in the glory of grand Hundreds Hall. Years later in the post-WW2 era, now an adult, he returns to the house at the request of the  residents the Ayres family who inhabit the house which has fallen into disrepair and the family fortunes have dwindled. The Ayres are struggling to maintain the crumbling house while seemingly being unable to keep pace with a society that is changing around them. At the same time the house appears haunted by something  sinister when strange events begin to occur.

The central theme of the book – the haunting, made for brilliant book group fodder (and reading) because Waters keeps it ambiguous and sows lots of little seeds which means that I came up with lots of theories as it went along. In some regards it reminded me a little of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw in the way that Waters inspires a vague, unsettling feeling as the book goes on, although in contrast to James, I felt I could actually develop quite a clear conviction about what might be happening which I found more satisfying.

I found the ‘horror’ in the book to be very slow-building. The book sets the scene in detail and you shouldn’t expect jumps on every page. Some members of the group found this to be quite frustrating but I felt that the overall impact was very effective as Waters really visualises the house and family members for you through the eyes of the doctor so that it’s like you are there! I made an effort, and I recommend you do if you choose this novel, to try to find relaxed moments in which to read chunks of it at once as you need to give yourself time to fully get involved.

The characters in the novel all have complex personalities, most notably the Doctor, whose narration allows us a window into the house. Having moved up from being the son of a servant at Hundreds Hall to being a doctor, pushed by his parents, he is in many ways a symbol of the way that class structure was changing in England at this time. However at the same time, he resists modernity with worries about what will happen when a National Health Service is introduced, and his desire to return to Hundreds Hall which is anything but progressive.

The Inhabitants of Hundreds Hall are Carolyn Ayres, a plain but wilful woman, her brother Roddie who is also the heir but somehow struggles with stepping up to the role, and Mrs Ayres the fading matriarch of the household. Together they make a sad but fascinating group who seem to be dwindling into obscurity along with Hundreds.

I was super-impressed with how Waters managed to bring together so many complex social and psychological themes, while writing descriptive but useful (not flowery) prose and also working these things into what I call a ‘proper story’. I don’t think that it will be everyone’s cup of tea, as it is a slow-burner and it’s not a straightforward ghost story but the suspense and action does escalate in the second half of the book. I loved this book and I will definitely be reading more Sarah Waters novels in future.

Have you read The Little Stranger, and if so what did you think?

What Sarah Waters novels have you read (if any)?

25 responses to “The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

  1. The Fingersmith is one of my favourite books and is so much better than The Little Stranger. I did enjoy LS, but was expecting something a bit better. If you enjoyed this one then I’m sure you’ll love the rest!

    • I was a bit foolish and watched the TV adaptation on DVD first and so not feeling as inspired to read the book afterwards, but I have a copy of The Night Watch which I will definitely be getting around too soon!

  2. Thanks for the review, Ive owned this book for a couple of weeks now as I love a good haunted house story. Funnily enough I am reading the turn of the screw at the moment.

    • Ooh, I’ll be interested to hear what you think. They are very different, but with a similar ambiguous theme of spookiness!

  3. I have a couple of Waters’ books on my shelves, but have yet to read them. I’m thinking that maybe its time to start one. Thanks for the review!

  4. This was the first Waters book I read and I loved it, just loved it. I finished Fingersmith recently as well and liked it every bit as much. I’d have a terribly hard time choosing between the two. Fingersmith has more plot and more surprises and twists that keep you guessing, but the ending of Little Stranger was rather more chilling. I’m eager to read more!

    • I have a copy of The Night Watch, so I might have to get reading that soon. I really didn’t expect to like this as much as I did but I was seriously impressed by Waters’ writing! Glad you enjoyed it too.

  5. I haven’t read Waters but would like to start with this one as it seems to have disappointed most fans of her previous, supposedly-better novels. I want to come into this without any expectations nor preconceptions.

    • Yes, sometimes it’s good to start with the ones that others don’t like as much, then you can only expect it to get better if you like it!

  6. I read the Little Stranger last year and loved it. Then I read The Night Watch and loved it even more. Now I’m reading Affinity and will be re-reading Fingersmith soon. She writes beautifully, doesn’t she?

  7. I loved, loved this book too. Still thinking of it and the ending which was very open-ended. I’ve read most of Waters’ novels and the ones I particularly loved aside from this one were Fingersmith and Affinity.

    • Quite a few people have said they liked Affinity too, so will have to look out for a copy of that. Glad you loved it too – seems to be one for a mixed reaction!

  8. Virginie Menzildjian

    I loved it the plot, the writing, everything, just could not put it down !!!! I have Fingersmith in my TBR pile and want to read it soon as I am sure I will enjoy it.

  9. I’ve read both this one and The Night Watch and enjoyed them both – The Little Stranger was definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year. Like you I have my own very definite idea about the ambiguous ending, but I’m sure there would be lots of disagreement on this in a book club setting, which makes it ideal for that.

    • Hi Claire, yes it was great for a book group. I like it when a book makes for good discussion even when not everyone loves it!

  10. I’ve read all of Waters’ novels and this was probably my least, or second-least favourite (the other being The Night Watch). I actually wrote a second review of The Little Stranger as it was one I was still thinking about weeks later, still am, but mainly due to the disappointment – it was too subtle and dry for my liking. I have grown to appreciate it more on hindsight and did love the allusions to Rebecca.

    • Perhaps it was good that I’ve read this one first as other Waters’ book-lovers have said similar things. I’ll have to read more and hopefully like her others even more!

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  13. I’ve just read this, and thought it was brilliant until the end, which disappointed me… I wanted something more conclusive. And going round reading blog reviews now, especially the one on Asylum blog, I am left completely confused!

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