“The Little Stranger” by Sarah Waters follows the involvement of Dr. Faraday, a lower-class man who, by the scrimping and hard work of his loving parents earned his physician’s degrees and license, with the local gentry of Hundreds Hall. Dr. Faraday’s mother used to work as a maid in the then fine house, but when he called to check on the new maid, he’s struck by the state of the mansion and its inhabitants. The matriarch, Mrs. Ayers, drifts through the pages with the dignified air of an earlier age, more consumed by memories than able to deal with the harsh realities of post WWII England. Her son, Roderick, seems to buckle beneath the responsibilities of running the place, and their personal situations crumble as surely as the finery of the ill-maintained Hundreds Hall. The doctor (and narrator) describes Miss Caroline Ayers as long-legged and plain, yet he finds himself drawn to the eligible lady and her family’s crumbling fortunes. As his friendship with the Ayers grows, Dr. Faraday learns of potential supernatural incidents. A man of science, Dr. Faraday seeks scientific, rational answers for odd occurrences and mysterious fires.
“The Little Stranger” boasts lyrical passages in it 512 pages. The author Sarah Waters incorporated Gothic elements, and it is impossible to read the novel without examining the obvious metaphors drawn between the decay of Hundreds Hall and the decline of the British aristocratic society. Dr. Faraday’s spartan upbringing is drawn in stark contrast with the privileged lifestyle of the family he came to befriend. While he’d boosted his standing in society, however, the Ayers’ lifestyle crumbled.
It is a slow story telling with an unreliability (and at times unlikeability) of some of the well-drawn characters. As with any good Gothic work, the house is its own important character, and the presence of the supernatural flits through the imagination like the flicker of flames. The book touches on the treatment (or lack) of PTSD, dementia, and madness. The book also opens a window through with the modern reader can witness the battle between the failing gentry’s lifestyle and the growing respect for the worth of hard work, as well as the significance of superstitious beliefs verses scientific explanations. The ending will allow the reader plenty to mull over.