Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Haunted by the past

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters’s latest novel, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is a simple tale – at least on first inspection.

Set in rural Warwickshire just after WWII, it charts the apparent haunting of the Ayres family in their dilapidated home, Hundreds Hall, as narrated by local GP Dr Faraday.

From being the leading family in the area, with a fine Georgian house and estate, staffed by a multitude of servants, we meet the final three members of the line, mother, son and daughter, rattling around in the dusty, musty decaying remains of their grand past.

And into this diminishing world comes a series of inexplicable events – all with tragic consequences.

But this is no conventional ghost story. Waters has used the genre to examine the seismic shifts that happened in post-war Britain, as the landed gentry started losing their authority and land, and working people took huge steps forward.

Health is a subtle thread that runs throughout the book; several times in this pre-NHS time, Faraday visits people living in appalling, sick-making conditions, and fretting over whether they can afford essential care and medicines.

And health – of the mental variety – links arms with haunting, as the Ayres fate becomes clearer: what is real and what is not? Are the Ayres – and their class – haunted by something other than ghosts?

Class is central here: the Ayres, so used to servants and to seeing – and presenting – themselves as ‘examples’ to those around (an attitude that my own parents always held of the roles of myself and my sister as part of a clergy family), are finding themselves out of time, haunted by that past and unable to move on.

They can’t attract servants, and they cannot themselves do the work in the house and on the estate. Everything is falling into ruin as the truth of the matter – that they always had to rely on others and that those others now no longer need them – comes home to roost.

The Little Stranger is a gently-written novel that develops slowly. But Waters – partly as a result of her painstaking descriptions of the decaying Hundreds Hall – ratchets up the tension with consummate skill.

Her characters are not particularly loveable, but in their fragility and their failings, Waters makes them human and believable, and leads us to feel compassion to all of them.

Waters is particularly well known for her first three novels – lesbian romps – including Tipping the Velvet. But this is a very different book. Conventional on the surface – but with the ghosts of myriad themes only just beneath. And very good indeed.


  1. I loved this book. The Little Stranger seems to have racheted Waters up to a level with - well - if not exactly onto a level with The Master, then onto a level deserving of this position on the Booker shortlist.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Lynda. And yes, Waters really is a talent that is developing and growing a great deal.

    I wasn't sure about this book when I started it – 'not sure', that is, about whether it merited a place on the Booker shortlist. But it's left me with so many things to muse that I realised, by the end, just how good it is. And perhaps that's almost a problem with some authors – they make it look so easy that you forget just what an art they have mastered.