With The Little Stranger
, I've not only read another book for the RIP Challenge, I've also finally completed another owned-and-unread book from the TBR shelf. I bought The Little Stranger
at a library sale not long after I finished (and loved) Fingersmith,
so I've been looking forward to reading it. But like my last RIP book, We Have Always Lived in the Castle
, it wasn't quite what I was expecting.
Set just a couple of years after the end of World War II, The Little Stranger
is an atmospheric story told in the first person by a British country doctor, John Faraday. He grew in the shadow of Hundreds, a grand country house owned by the local gentry family, the Ayreses. Though his mother was in service and his father a shopkeeper, Dr. Faraday was able to rise above his station through hard work and his parents' sacrifices. He's not the Ayreses' regular doctor, but one day he's called out there as a substitute, to check on a young maid who's ailing.
The maid seems to be shamming, but confesses to Dr. Faraday that she's unhappy in the big house, which gives her the creeps. He dismisses her fears -- the house is nearly empty nowadays, with only a full-time housekeeper; Mrs. Ayres, a widow; her daughter Caroline, who is in her twenties and unmarried; and her son and heir Roderick, who was a pilot in the war and was badly wounded and burned in a crash.
The Ayres family has fallen on hard times, and are barely able to keep the estate afloat. With the pretext of helping Roderick with an experimental medical treatment, Dr. Faraday begins visiting the Ayreses on a regular basis. He becomes a close family friend and confidant and is present when a terrible thing happens, the first of many odd occurences.
Three of Sarah Waters' novels are neo-Victorian, but this is her second foray into another historical era -- post-WWII Britain, which I thought she did extremely well. Of course I'm no expert, but the past year or so I've been reading a lot more fiction written and published in that era, and the mood was very similar. Waters does an excellent job evoking the period, but what I think was best about the book was her description of an aristocratic family fallen on hard times, and their struggle to keep their lifestyle afloat. They're desperately hanging on to another era -- they can't keep the farm going, can't maintain the property, and can barely find servants to help them around the house. It's a real contrast to the books I've been reading recently in which great houses have scores of servants and most women had few other job choices than to be a maid, cook, or governess.
The supernatural aspect of the book is not the best part, in my opinion, and I was a little disappointed in the ending, which didn't quite satisfy me. But the book is so well written, I read it pretty quickly over a couple of days. I didn't like it quite as much as Fingersmith
, but it was well worth reading. One of my librarian friends is coordinating a historical fiction book group, and the December read is one of Waters' other books, Affinity
, so I'm hoping to get to it in a couple of months. This one is set in a Victorian asylum and also has supernatural elements -- as my friend Jason commented, "Nothing says Christmas like Victorian madhouses!"