Sarah Waters’ latest novel, The Little Stranger, is a considerable departure from her earlier novels, and in its simplified structure (compared to The Night Watch, for example) and its fast-moving but considered prose, it feels like a more mature work. The plot is deceptively straightforward: set in 1947, a crumbling stately home is haunted, and the family doctor becomes increasingly involved with the mother, son and daughter who live there as he tries to decipher whether there is really a ghost, or a form of delusion. Waters tells the story in a mostly sombre tone; her descriptions are remarkably evocative and detailed, although there is nothing fanciful about her prose; the (male) doctor narrates, and does so in a matter-of-fact tone which makes the events of the book appear all the more chilling.
The novel is, in fact, remarkably Victorian in style, which is perhaps appropriate as it is a novel which is, as ghost stories always are, about the past returning to haunt the living. In its linear tale, its concentration on the domestic home, the characters’ concern with traditional values, and in its measured prose-style, this appears to be a somewhat traditional, even old-fashioned, ghost story.
However, it is much more than that. The “ghost” or “little stranger” is, it seems, more likely to be a poltergeist, a projection of the unhappiness of one of the characters – if it has not been simply imagined by the family. As the events unfold, Waters ensures that the reader is kept guessing whilst providing enough information to draw one in, and become sufficiently involved to be genuine spine-chilled. Moreover, there are layers and possible interpretations to this novel which give it depth: for example, the class-tension between the gentry, the doctor and the people of the village is carefully explored, and may, one suspects, be a possible cause of the psychic disturbances. The house itself, so Gothic in its crumbling state, represents the beleaguered state of the aristocracy after the wars, and also the crumbling family, struggling to keep going but mentally cracking under the strain. The concluding chapter opens up a different interpretation as to the source of the ghost; it is a novel which makes one think.
Waters has clearly done some considerable research into this novel, and it presents an utterly convincing tale which contrasts the dark and the light of human characters against a grand and terrible sweep of British history.