Staff Pick: The Little Stranger

by Sarah Waters (Little, Brown, Virago)

Something strange, something inexplicable happened while I was reading The Little Stranger. Well into the story, gripped by its concatenation of creepy phenomena, I proceeded from the bottom of page 310 to the top of the next ... page 247.

I hesitated, thinking I had made some mistake. But there it was, more brazen than any of the eerie twists in Waters' story: in a retrograde jump from 310 to 247, the book reprinted the text of pages 247 through 310 and then leapt forward to 375. A whole 65 pages were missing. In a book about preternatural events, no less.

Full marks to the author for her exhaustive efforts to unsettle the reader.

Now of those efforts actually attributable to Waters, the most striking is her masterful and authentic attention to detail; the novel is much more sophisticated a ghost story because of it. Keenly aware of the ethos she portrays, Waters deftly situates the physical decay of Hundreds Hall within the story of the Ayres family's psychological decay within the larger story of the aristocracy's social decay in post-World War II Britain.

We are ushered into the declining post-war aristocracy by a local general practitioner, Dr. Faraday. Called to fill in for a colleague, Faraday visits the crumbling edifice of Hundreds Hall and the dwindling Ayres Family: the dowager Mrs. Ayres, her spinster daughter, Caroline, and her war-wounded son and Caroline's brother, Roderick.

This is not the first time Faraday has been to Hundreds Hall, nor will it be the last. As a young boy, he had visited the Ayres estate, where his mother worked as a maid. Left alone for a few moments in the servant stairs he had peered into one of its many grand rooms and begun a curious, if not covetous obsession with the house, even carving out and pocketing a decorative plaster acorn from one of the walls.

But returning almost 30 years later, he enters a world very different from the one he beheld as a child. The drive is overgrown, the house in a steadily worsening state of disrepair. As Faraday grows closer to the family, soon more a friend than a doctor, he becomes enmeshed in the strange series of events that befall them. The normally docile family dog attacks and mars a young girl; dark stains appear on the walls; items disappear and resurface in odd places; the telephone rings but there is no caller; a mysterious whistling resounds in the speaking tube.

Over the course of the novel, the events become harder and harder to dismiss as coincidental. Despite Faraday's outward rejection of the paranormal, the tragic unraveling of the Ayres family strikes a chord with him and stirs up some frightening questions. Are the Ayreses suffering from hallucinatory psychosis or is there a sinister presence in Hundreds Hall? Can it all be explained away by medicine and science?

It is here, in this limbo of surety and doubt that Waters excels, subtly tying a string around the floating question "What if?" and always keeping it just close enough.

The Little Stranger was short-listed for the 2009 Booker Prize, Water's third novel to make that list.

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