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The Little Stranger    by Sarah Waters order for
Little Stranger
by Sarah Waters
Order:  USA  Can
Riverhead, 2009 (2009)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Formerly a grand estate built in 1733 in Warwickshire, England, Hundreds Hall has been home to the Ayres family for the past few generations, but as the action of The Little Stranger begins in the summer of 1947, Hundreds Hall is surrounded by an 'unkempt landscape,' and it stands as a 'poor neglected house {that has been} quietly sliding into decay.'

When the nearly forty year old narrator, Dr. Faraday, is summoned to the Ayres estate because of an apparently ill servant girl, he remembers having been there with his servant-class mother when he was a young boy thirty years earlier. He distinctly remembers that parts of Hundreds Hall were off-limits to him because of who he was and other areas had 'the feel of a castle dungeon.' That recollection should have been a warning to him about what was about to happen to him during the coming months.

Though the servant girl recovers without complications, Dr. Faraday's introduction to the tenants of Hundreds Hall will be the beginning of very serious personal challenges and difficulties: Twenty-four year old Roderick Ayres seems tormented by more than his war injuries; someone or something in the family home is affecting his mental health. Roderick's sister, twenty-six year old Caroline, thought by many to be a 'natural spinster,' hesitantly befriends the slightly older physician, and an uneasy romance between the two gradually develops. Roderick's and Caroline's mother, holding onto the past and anxious about the future, soon has reason to fear what might really happen to her family and everyone associated with Hundreds Hall.

Spectral phenomena, gruesome accidents, and mysterious deaths lead Dr. Faraday to realize that there is indeed something very dangerous going on at the dilapidated estate. He reluctantly admits to himself that Hundreds Hall might actually be haunted (though that remains an open question), and then he makes surprising speculations about who or what might be responsible for the apparent haunting.

Don't let the seductively innocent title of this highly recommended novel fool you. The Little Stranger might sound like the title for a children's story, but the tale itself is reminiscent of gothic romances of the past (i.e., Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, and the novels of M. G. Lewis and Ann Radcliffe); however, author Sarah Waters goes beyond her antecedents and focuses on the more modern themes of social class tensions and emotional estrangement as they manifest themselves in the post-World War II setting. More than a formulaic gothic ghost story, The Little Stranger is a powerful psychological study in which the considerable pressures and problems of the four main characters may have both corporeal and spectral origins. Let the reader decide.

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