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"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen

Review: The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger - Sarah Waters
The first half of the 20th Century dealt a death blow to Britain's landed gentry.  A long-established way of life that had endured for centuries fell apart under the social and economic upheavals of two World Wars, as well as political transitions that had been percolating for decades - the enfranchisement of the lower classes, increased taxation on the large estates, fewer people willing or constrained to work as servants or tenant farmers.  The past century saw well over 1,000 English manor houses demolished, with others donated, repurposed, or sold to wealthy foreigners.  You've wallowed in this era if you've read The Remains of the Day, or watched Downton Abbey.
In The Little Stranger, the crumbling Warwickshire mansion Hundreds Hall represents its occupants' epochal decline.  It is a haunted house, but not necessarily in the traditional sense of ghosts and poltergeists.  What lurks in its sagging corridors and decrepit chambers could be the apparition of a dead little girl... or it could be something vaster, deeper, more starved and putrescent than any wandering corpse.
This is a terrifying story.

The narrator of The Little Stranger is Dr. Faraday, the local physician, who begins the story with a childhood memory.  It is 1919, and the Ayres family have opened the grounds of the resplendent Hundreds Hall to the county for an Empire Day fete.  Faraday's parents had met at the Hall, when his mother was a nursery maid and his father a grocer's delivery boy.  Though the house's interior is closed off to guests, his mother sneaks young Faraday down to the kitchen to visit with her former associates.  When one of the maids takes him with her up to the main house, beyond the green baize door, the boy is utterly enchanted with what he sees.  He develops a fascination with the house that stays with him for decades, even as the Ayreses and the building itself begin to fall apart.

In the post-WWII days where the story picks up, Faraday is called out to Hundreds to attend to a sick maid.  He finds siblings Caroline and Roderick Ayres frayed and beaten down - Rod by his war injuries, and Caroline with household chores.  The massive house now employs just one maid and a part-time cook, and the siblings have taken over much of the cleaning, gardening, and repair work on their own.  The only other living Ayres, their frail mother, seems content to live in the moribund mansion as well as she can, as if times have not changed.  The estate has sold off much of its land to pay the bills, but its debts continue to mount.  While anyone can see that Hundreds will not survive much longer (either as an institution or as a physical building), Faraday remains enraptured by its decaying opulence.  That old desire he'd had since childhood, to possess this magnificent house and everything it represents, comes rushing back.


The class divide in Britain is one of the major themes of the novel.  Faraday's parents had been very poor, and he had to work very hard to put himself through medical school.  Now he's a doctor and starting to make a decent living, but he still resents the society that would look down on him for his humble beginnings.  And Caroline and Rod have their own struggles with the ramifications of their social standing - he, buckling under the weight of Hundreds' failure on his shoulders; she, forced to give up a liberating nursing career to help manage the estate and care for her injured brother.  And Mrs. Ayres has her own concerns - the sale of neighboring estates to boorish nouveau-riche, the accompanying pressure on her to abandon her home and her once-esteemed position in the community.


With all of this turmoil festering in Hundreds Hall, it's not surprising that it all begins to erupt in terrifying ways.  Vicious animal attacks, objects that move of their own accord, ghostly writing appearing on walls, shrieking whistles emanating from abandoned nurseries.  Footsteps traipsing across empty corridors, doors that slam and lock spontaneously, strange burn marks appearing across ceilings and walls while the occupants sleep.  Sarah Waters is so skillful at building tension that the smallest spectral anomaly takes on paralyzing weight - I could not read this at night, and even in broad daylight it gave me shivers.  This hulking, treacherous house and its unknown malevolent presence.


But is it so unknown?


Whenever something dies -- a person, a legacy, an ambition, a way of life -- it leaves a phantom behind.  What is haunting Hundreds Hall?  The last gasps of the British aristocracy?  The resentful memory of a family's deferred hopes and dreams?  The simmering jealousy of a man who feels wronged by an entire social structure?  Or just a dead little girl -- little Sukey Ayres, sister of Rod and Caroline, dead before her seventh birthday?


Wouldn't it be so much simpler to blame it all on a child's ghost?  This seething, greedy, thwarted thing, welling up out of the past and infecting the present -- this unearthly force, this little stranger?


(2014, #28)