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The Little Stranger

Cover of The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger

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From the multi-award-winning and bestselling author of The Night Watch and Fingersmith comes an astonishing novel about love, loss, and the sometimes unbearable weight of the past.

In a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to see a patient at lonely Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the once grand house is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its garden choked with weeds. All around, the world is changing, and the family is struggling to adjust to a society with new values and rules.

Roddie Ayres, who returned from World War II physically and emotionally wounded, is desperate to keep the house and what remains of the estate together for the sake of his mother and his sister, Caroline. Mrs. Ayres is doing her best to hold on to the gracious habits of a gentler era and Caroline seems cheerfully prepared to continue doing the work a team of servants once handled, even if it means having little chance for a life of her own beyond Hundreds.

But as Dr. Faraday becomes increasingly entwined in the Ayreses' lives, signs of a more disturbing nature start to emerge, both within the family and in Hundreds Hall itself. And Faraday begins to wonder if they are all threatened by something more sinister than a dying way of life, something that could subsume them completely.

Both a nuanced evocation of 1940s England and the most chill-inducing novel of psychological suspense in years, The Little Stranger confirms Sarah Waters as one of the finest and most exciting novelists writing today.

From the multi-award-winning and bestselling author of The Night Watch and Fingersmith comes an astonishing novel about love, loss, and the sometimes unbearable weight of the past.

In a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to see a patient at lonely Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the once grand house is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its garden choked with weeds. All around, the world is changing, and the family is struggling to adjust to a society with new values and rules.

Roddie Ayres, who returned from World War II physically and emotionally wounded, is desperate to keep the house and what remains of the estate together for the sake of his mother and his sister, Caroline. Mrs. Ayres is doing her best to hold on to the gracious habits of a gentler era and Caroline seems cheerfully prepared to continue doing the work a team of servants once handled, even if it means having little chance for a life of her own beyond Hundreds.

But as Dr. Faraday becomes increasingly entwined in the Ayreses' lives, signs of a more disturbing nature start to emerge, both within the family and in Hundreds Hall itself. And Faraday begins to wonder if they are all threatened by something more sinister than a dying way of life, something that could subsume them completely.

Both a nuanced evocation of 1940s England and the most chill-inducing novel of psychological suspense in years, The Little Stranger confirms Sarah Waters as one of the finest and most exciting novelists writing today.

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Excerpts-
  • Chapter 1, Part 1

    I first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old. It was the summer after the war, and the Ayreses still had most of their money then, were still big people in the district. The event was an Empire Day fête: I stood with a line of other village children making a Boy Scout salute while Mrs Ayres and the Colonel went past us, handing out commemorative medals; afterwards we sat to tea with our parents at long tables on what I suppose was the south lawn. Mrs Ayres would have been twenty-four or -five, her husband a few years older; their little girl, Susan, would have been about six. They must have made a very handsome family, but my memory of them is vague. I recall most vividly the house itself, which struck me as an absolute mansion. I remember its lovely ageing details: the worn red brick, the cockled window glass, the weathered sandstone edgings. They made it look blurred and slightly uncertain--like an ice, I thought, just beginning to melt in the sun.

    There were no trips inside, of course. The doors and French windows stood open, but each had a rope or a ribbon tied across it; the lavatories set aside for our use were the grooms' and the gardeners', in the stable block. My mother, however, still had friends among the servants, and when the tea was finished and people were given the run of the grounds, she took me quietly into the house by a side door, and we spent a little time with the cook and the kitchen girls. The visit impressed me terribly. The kitchen was a basement one, reached by a cool vaulted corridor with something of the feel of a castle dungeon. An extraordinary number of people seemed to be coming and going along it with hampers and trays. The girls had such a mountain of crockery to wash, my mother rolled up her sleeves to help them; and to my very great delight, as a reward for her labour I was allowed to take my pick of the jellies and 'shapes' that had come back uneaten from the fête. I was put to sit at a deal-topped table, and given a spoon from the family's own drawer--a heavy thing of dulled silver, its bowl almost bigger than my mouth.

    But then came an even greater treat. High up on the wall of the vaulted passage was a junction-box of wires and bells, and when one of these bells was set ringing, calling the parlourmaid upstairs, she took me with her, so that I might peep past the green baize curtain that separated the front of the house from the back. I could stand and wait for her there, she said, if I was very good and quiet. I must only be sure to keep behind the curtain, for if the Colonel or the missus were to see me, there'd be a row.

    I was an obedient child, as a rule. But the curtain opened onto the corner junction of two marble-floored passages, each one filled with marvellous things; and once she had disappeared softly in one direction, I took a few daring steps in the other. The thrill of it was astonishing. I don't mean the simple thrill of trespass, I mean the thrill of the house itself, which came to me from every surface--from the polish on the floor, the patina on wooden chairs and cabinets, the bevel of a looking-glass, the scroll of a frame. I was drawn to one of the dustless white walls, which had a decorative plaster border, a representation of acorns and leaves. I had never seen anything like it, outside of a church, and after a second of looking it over I did what strikes me now as a dreadful thing: I worked my fingers around one of the acorns and tried to prise it from its setting; and when that failed to release it, I got out my penknife and dug away with that. I didn't do it in a spirit of vandalism. I wasn't a spiteful or destructive boy. It was simply that, in admiring the house, I...

About the Author-
  • Sarah Waters is the bestselling author of four previous novels: Tipping the Velvet; Affinity; Fingersmith; and The Night Watch. Winner of many literary awards, she has been shortlisted for both the Man Booker and Orange Prizes. She lives in London.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from March 30, 2009
    Waters (The Night Watch
    ) reflects on the collapse of the British class system after WWII in a stunning haunted house tale whose ghosts are as horrifying as any in Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House
    . Doctor Faraday, a lonely bachelor, first visited Hundreds Hall, where his mother once worked as a parlor maid, at age 10 in 1919. When Faraday returns 30 years later to treat a servant, he becomes obsessed with Hundreds's elegant owner, Mrs. Ayres; her 24-year-old son, Roderick, an RAF airman wounded during the war who now oversees the family farm; and her slightly older daughter, Caroline, considered a “natural spinster” by the locals, for whom the doctor develops a particular fondness. Supernatural trouble kicks in after Caroline's mild-mannered black Lab, Gyp, attacks a visiting child. A damaging fire, a suicide and worse follow. Faraday, one of literature's more unreliable narrators, carries the reader swiftly along to the devastating conclusion.

  • The Gazette (Montreal) "Waters pulls such a sensational sleight of hand that you can get to the last page of this novel, sigh contentedly, and immediately turn to the first page and begin reading a story that resonates in a completely different register.... Delightfully eerie.... A welcome addition to the Waters canon, confirming her place as one of the best of our contemporary historical novelists."
  • The Toronto Star "A full-on, down-the-hatches ghost story.... Hundreds Hall is as much a characters as any of the humans in the book, animated by Waters' masterful, highly visual descriptions.... If you read only one ghost story this summer, make it this one."
  • The Globe and Mail "This novel belongs in an 18th-century tradition, the Gothic line ... timeless."
  • Winnipeg Free Press "Closer to Henry James than Stephen King.... Waters is a great stylist and a master storyteller."
  • Washington Post "A deliciously creepy tale ... haunted by the spirits of Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe.... A ghost story as intelligent as it is stylish.... [Faraday] calls to mind Patricia Highsmith's clever psychopath, Tom Ripley.... Waters has made old bones dance again."
  • Newsday "Completely absorbing [and] full of mystery.... At the end of the book, Waters delivers a real shock.... Hundreds Hall is a pretty gloomy place, but I was thrilled to spend time there, under the guidance of this supremely gifted storyteller."
  • Evening Standard "Sarah Waters has renewed a chilling genre. Just don't read her new book in the house on your own at night."
  • NOW magazine "Terrific.... [Waters] tells a story like no one else."
  • Salon.com "Masterly, enthralling.... Waters has managed to write a near-perfect gothic novel while at the same time confidently deploying the form into fresher territory. It's an astonishing performance, right down to the book's mournful and devastating final sentence."
  • TimeOut New York "A stunning ghost story that nurtures Turn of the Screw–style ambiguities."
  • Columbus Post-Dispatch "The spookiest book I've read in a long time.... The ending is perfect, leaving just enough to the imagination, and sending echoes back through all that has come before."
  • USA Today "A classic gothic page-turner."
  • The New York Times "Sarah Waters is an excellent, evocative writer, and this is an incredibly gripping and readable novel."
  • The Independent "Waters has yet again written a classic thriller, styled as a classic thriller. It can be only a matter of time before a latter-day Hitchcock turns it into a film."
  • Hilary Mantel, in The Guardian "Waters's masterly novel is a perverse hymn to decay, to the corrosive power of class resentment as well as the damage wrought by the war.... 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."
  • Tracy Chevalier, in The Guardian "Waters is clearly at the top of her game, with few to match her ability to bring the past to life in a fully imagined world."
  • Fay Weldon, in The Financial Times "Two novels under one cover. One of these is a shrewd and highly readable social history of the late 1940s... [the other] is a classic ghost story of the haunted house, Edgar Allan Poe variety."
  • Timesonline.co.uk "Again displaying her remarkable flair for period evocation, Waters re-creates back-water Britain just after the second world war with atmospheric immediacy."
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    McClelland & Stewart
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