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Are things really what they seem?

Right from the first page, The Little Stranger promises to be a gripping tale. And indeed it is – sometimes even a chilling one. The Welsh author Sarah Waters (1966) is known for locating her stories against well-documented historical backdrops; this tale takes place in the post-war period.

The Little Stranger is about an upper-class family living in a mansion that has been deteriorating since the Second World War. The Ayres family – mother, son and daughter – all try to keep pace with the changes in society and do their very best to maintain the house as well as their good name. But one day in summer, they are forced to call in a doctor, because the only servant they have left is feeling sick.

A long time previously, Dr Faraday’s mother had worked for the Ayres family as a maid, which is indicative of his background. The doctor views their call as an opportunity to gain more respect in the region. After his first visit, he becomes more and more involved with the family. Throughout the summer and autumn, the Ayres family become convinced that the house is haunted – strange things keep happening around the house, and they hear all manner of weird sounds. Faraday continues trying to find the logical reason behind every incident, right until the very end.

The strength of the book lies not only in the suspense, but also in the characters. They are all very consistent in their behaviour, and clearly products of the time in which they live. Faraday struggles with his poor background, doing everything possible to free himself of this burden. Despite the way he is treated by the family (who think of themselves as somehow ‘better’ than the lower classes), he is unwilling to give up on the family. Even when strange things start happening and the Ayers begin to think the house is haunted, he doesn’t believe it for a second, and remains calm, sensible and loyal. No matter how terrifying and inexplicable things become, he remains unwilling to believe in the supernatural.

Waters is sometimes called ‘the lesbian Charles Dickens’, although this homosexual aspect rears its head only indirectly in this book.  She has chosen an interesting point of view by having Dr Faraday tell the story. And he does so without sparing himself, but seems unable to judge his own part in the events. This narrow-minded approach is sometimes irritating, and Waters really shakes the reader’s love for the main character. But curiosity about how it will all end still comes out the clear winner.

 

Welmoed Hoogvorst

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