Review: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters combines spookiness and social observation in a gripping tale, says Hilary Mantel

It is 1947; the nation is exhausted by victory, and neither the National Health Service nor the National Trust has yet come along to pick up the pieces. The scars of war heroes are fresh and great country houses are battered from the military's occupation, their parks dug over for vegetable plots. The civilian population is depressed by rationing, homelessness, postwar gloom and austerity. Dr Faraday is a country GP practising in Warwickshire, in the area where he was born, to poor parents who sacrificed everything for his education. Unmarried, he is slouching into an impecunious and unloved middle age, apprehensive about the coming changes in medical practice and pessimistic about his future. Many of his patients live in rural slums; he has never been taken up by the local gentry. Socially, he finds himself awkwardly poised between classes. He is conscious that some of the boys with whom he shared a school bench are now no more than labourers. He has grasped his opportunities, but the strain shows; he is unable to eradicate, within himself, the signs of his past struggle.

So when he is called out to visit a patient at Hundreds Hall, he thinks his luck has changed. His mother had once been a servant to the Ayres family, and as a little boy he had visited the hall on the occasion of an Empire Day fete, had eaten leftover jellies at the kitchen table while his mother lent a hand with the washing-up. A maid answering a bell had smuggled him upstairs, and he had been overawed by the exquisite, airy Georgian interior. His deprived eye had craved what he recognised as beauty, grace. Left alone for a moment in a corridor, he had broken off a plasterwork acorn, and taken it home in his pocket.

Was that tiny act of vandalism the moment when ruin began? Sarah Waters's masterly novel is a perverse hymn to decay, to the corrosive power of class resentment as well as the damage wrought by war. Hundreds Hall is crawling with blights and moulds, crumbling from subsidence and water damage. Beetles knock behind panelling. Weeds force themselves through stone. The window panes are dim and warped; they reflect nothing truly. Its corridors are dark, light spilling unexpectedly from open doors and the great dome above. The psyches of the inhabitants are riddled with ambivalence, holed by self-doubt, worn away by genteel, stifled frustration. They speak the soothing language of upper-class good manners, but all are unable to face their damaged selves, or contemplate their capacity for doing damage in their turn.

Faraday's patient, he finds, is not the lady of the house, nor is it her son or daughter. It is Betty, a 14-year-old skivvy, the only servant now employed in a house that once provided work for dozens. She says she has abdominal pain; Faraday suspects she is malingering, but permits her a day in bed, and points out to her employers that she is homesick and nervous, isolated in her basement bedroom. Betty's fear that something is deeply wrong in the house is laughed off, as the product of country ignorance. In a classic ghost narrative, it is often the children and the dogs who are first to feel the cold draught, the creep and slither of the uncanny. It is a mark of the author's perfect understanding of her period that Dr Faraday and her employers regard Betty as being hardly on the human level. After each messy disaster, each shock, each stroke of fate, Betty is summoned with a blackly comic inevitability, to mop up the blood and the broken glass, to carry buckets of water, to brew tea and calm the nerves of her social superiors. Inarticulate, gauche, she is not considered to have the sensibility to feel the higher types of terror. No one offers Betty an explanation as gruesome events escalate. She is being paid a wage, after all, to stand by without complaining as the laws of nature are broken.

Mrs Ayres is a soignée woman living in the midst of decrepitude, well groomed despite the fact that she cohabits with sagging sofas, peeling walls, threadbare rugs. Her son Rod, in his early 20s, has come back from his service with the RAF scarred and limping, with a legacy of "nervous trouble". Now he is trying to keep the house and estate going. He is selling land and living on capital. In the course of the book, council houses will be built within sight of the hall, their livid industrial brick a mocking parody of its faded rose and gold. Rod is unequal to his self-imposed task of keeping faith with his ancestors. Unable to climb stairs without pain, he combines bedroom and office in one grand but squalid salon, sleeping amid the overdue bills. Faraday has ideas about how to treat his injuries; but perhaps what draws the doctor back and back to Hundreds Hall is not the increasingly belligerent and depressed young master, but his sister Caroline, thick-legged, plain, graceless, bossy, and yet with a certain sexual allure.

Every ghost story needs a Dr Faraday, a blunt literalist with a sturdy sense of self. Such a figure begins as the reader's surrogate, the voice of scepticism. We've been told ghost stories before, and we're not going to fall for the author's wiles and tricks; our narrator is determined, on our behalf, to avoid melodrama. Then as the story progresses, our representative comes up with ever more tortured "rational explanations" for bizarre events, explanations that require us to be more imaginative and gullible than we would be if we simply accepted the supernatural. "I see what's in front of me," Faraday claims stoutly. For the love of God, the reader cries: wake up man, look behind you! The author has worked a spell. We now see that our guide and mentor is dull-witted, complacent, perhaps self-deceiving; we are turning the pages faster and faster.

The reader of Affinity will know that Waters is creepily conversant with ways to scare us. The reader of Fingersmith will know how deftly she handles a plot twist. The Little Stranger is a more controlled and composed novel than her last book, the widely admired The Night Watch, which was set during the second world war. Here she deploys the vigour and cunning one finds in Margaret Atwood's fiction. She has the same narrative ease and expansiveness, and the same knack of twisting the tension tighter and tighter within an individual scene. The reader may be reminded of two of Atwood's best novels: The Robber Bride, with its narrative loops and spins and returns, and Alias Grace, with its otherworldly shiver and its seething between-the-lines excitement. Like that book, The Little Stranger operates in the queasy borderlands between the supernatural and the psychopathological, and it is territory in which Waters moves with an air of supreme ease. One of the pleasures of the book is the way she combines spookiness with sharp social observation. She is at home in a convincing postwar setting; however much we pity the family at Hundreds Hall, as their ancestral pile and their sanity collapse about them, Waters never lets us lose sight of their repulsive social attitudes. It does seem, at one point, as if it is the spirit of snobbery that is haunting them.

It would be a hard-hearted reviewer who gave away the plot. It is enough to say that there are moments when we move into Henry James territory. As in The Turn of the Screw, a stifling shame, like fog, seeps through the narrative; it is what we feel when we see the shadow within our psyche, the black and mirrored version of our sane and social self. At a glimpse of it, we exclaim, like Caroline, "it's grotesque . . . it's filthy". Waters manages the conclusion of her book with consummate, quiet skill. It is gripping, confident, unnerving and supremely entertaining. And its mood lingers; in the 24 hours after finishing it, readers may hear, as I did, the whisper of its events bedding down into consciousness. Its allusions, its implications softly gather and fold themselves into the space in the mind that the book has made for itself, falling into place with a soft hiss, a rustle like phantom silks.

• Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall is published by Fourth Estate. Sarah Waters is at the Hay festival on Saturday 30 May


Hilary Mantel

The GuardianTramp

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