The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Week one: pace

Pace is something discerning readers notice, but critics rarely analyse. It describes a fundamental experience of narrative: the perceived speed at which a story unfolds. This can be counter-intuitive. Thrillers are fast, we might think, and novels of manners are slow. But not always so. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is often deliciously, pains-takingly slow (the plot being unfolded in the accumulation of clues), while Emma can seem a whirl of blunders and revelations.

The pacing of Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger is compellingly managed. The novel tells one story, without digression or sub-plot, for 500 pages – perhaps 150,000 words. It is, especially for its first two thirds, intently slow. It is narrated by Dr Faraday (we never know his first name), a hard-worked GP in late 1940s Warwickshire. He tells of his deepening involvement in the lives of a once-grand local family – the widowed Mrs Ayres and her adult children, Roderick and Caroline – who live in much reduced circumstances in their huge mouldering house, Hundreds Hall. Faraday refers in passing to other dramas of life and death at which he officiates. Waters's research into the life of a country GP in the days just before the arrival of the National Health Service remains under the surface. Faraday is perfunctory in his treatment of all the events of his life except his encounters with the Ayres family.

The pacing shifts. More than a month passes (in one short paragraph) between his first and second visits to Hundreds Hall, then slowly the visits become more frequent. First they are divided by weeks, then only by days. "I began to go out to the Hall once or even twice a week." He wants to record every detail of his growing familiarity with the family. Some of the set-pieces at first appear to be minutely imagined exercises in period reconstruction, but they also make the reader experience the awkwardness of this familiarity. One such is Faraday's lengthy account of a district hospital dance to which he invites Caroline, already spinsterish in her 20s. The austerity age bonhomie and the leery, drink-fuelled chat of Faraday's fellow doctors is brilliantly rendered, as is the physical awkwardness of the narrator's dances with Caroline – and then the mortification of his fumbled attempts at love-making. This narrator cannot miss any embarrassing gesture or unwise word.

Bad things happen to the Ayres family, made worse by the narrator's patient but masochistic minuteness. An episode in which a child who has been brought to a drinks party at the house is terribly bitten in the face by the Ayres' dog is made more shocking by the narrative pacing. Waters makes Faraday arrive early, makes him watch the awkward preparations (drooping wallpaper being tacked temporarily in place), and makes him transcribe the charmless conversation of the arriviste guests of honour, the Baker-Hydes.You want the evening to end, before the dreadful moment of violence that horribly satisfies your wishes.

Delay is of the essence of Waters's narrative method. It is almost exactly halfway through the novel that Mrs Ayres first mentions her daughter Susan, who died of diphtheria as a child almost 30 years earlier. We have been told of this small tragedy in the opening chapter, by a subsidiary character. At this point Faraday himself recalls, as a boy, watching the funeral cortège pass through the village. It is when the long-bereaved mother speaks suddenly of her dead daughter all those pages later that you realise how long it has taken her to do so. It is at this moment that the reader feels that delay and realises that he or she was half-waiting for this. Memories of the dead child, artfully left dormant by the novelist herself for so long, will begin to take possession of the novel.

In a narrative where supernatural occurrences are possible, circumstantial minutiae become potentially significant. The denizens of Hundreds keep finding objects in the wrong places and keep being disturbed by the fact. A page is spent with Mrs Ayres looking for her reading glasses, and chatting on about her decaying faculties until Betty, the young live-in servant, finds them in an unexpected place. Does this matter? Or is it just the fussy detail of shabby genteel life?

Genre dictates pace. The tale of the supernatural is traditionally an art of slowly built crescendo: we know that eventual horrors begin with small intimations – that witnesses will at first be only mildly discomposed. The Little Stranger certainly uses such conventions. A foolish young servant girl, herself an unsettling presence in the household, declares early in the book: "There's a bad thing in this house." But evidence of naturally inexplicable phenomena mounts with "ghastly" (to use one of the narrator's favoured adjectives) slowness. There are strange scorch marks that become evident in Roddy's room, then mysterious childish scrawling on a wall, then the whole machinery of inexplicable noises and signals. All are recounted by a narrator whose belief in natural explanation is absolute, a rather literal-minded man whose scepticism must remain obstinate in response to the mounting terrors of the other characters. We slowly realise that this narrator is not just the factual reporter of strange events, but an active participant in them.

John Mullan is professor of English at University College London. Join him and Sarah Waters for a discussion on 10 August, at 7pm, Hall One, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1. Tickets are £9.50 online ( or £11.50 from the box office (020 7520 1490).


John Mullan

The GuardianTramp

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