The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters #manbooker

Fortunately, this is my first encounter with Sarah Waters, so I didn't have high expectations like many other people whose blogs I've read!

The Little Stranger is set in post-WWII Warwickshire, and focuses on Hundreds Hall, a formerly grand mansion house. Our protagonist is a Doctor with working class roots, whose mother once served at Hundreds Hall. By chance, the Doctor comes into contact with the three remaining Ayreses, resident at the Hall and trusted with its upkeep. The trio, mother with son and daughter, soon develop a relationship with the Doctor, albeit at the appropriate arms length for their respective 'stations'. The Doctor becomes very fond of the odd family, who seem barely able to maintain the Hall, and he becomes entangled in both the Hall and the family's life. Strange things start to occur, and the family's mettle is tested against the Hall.

I was absolutely terrified by The Little Stranger. The narrative is handled so delicately as to produce exquisite suspense, which left me walking a fine line between wanting to close the book to cast off the fear, and being compelled to keep reading. Waters is a masterful author, allowing the reader to be present at each odd report, each strange phenomenon, each inexplicable event. Our narrator, the Doctor, gives his account in first person and is almost bloody minded – both that the Hall is a wonderful place that ought to be saved and resurected to its former glory, and that the 'supernatural' is nothing more than individual neuroses. The Doctor's adamance in the face of compelling and inexplicable phenomena means that as the climax approaches and the Doctor starts to question himself, the reader has a palpable sense of internal conflict and the sickening sensation of being out of control.

It's a really interesting take on the 'ghost story' without exercising so much probity that it flattens the genre. Even though it's 499 pages long, the novel is engaging and compelling throughout, as it builds a fantastic sense of place and time.

What prevented this being a flawless novel was the weak romance, which wasn't difficult to understand, but was difficult to buy in to. I'm really looking forward to reading more Sarah Waters – suggestions welcome about where to start!

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