4.5 out of 5: The Little Stranger, a new novel by well-known British author Sarah Waters, examines the great social upheaval in England during the years immediately following World War II through the perspective of a once-grand family as that perspective is narrated by the family’s local doctor, Dr. Faraday. Mrs. Ayers and her two adult, unmarried children, Caroline and Roderick, are the last remnants of the Ayres family living in crumbling Hundreds Hall on an unkempt estate in rural England. Dr. Faraday, who comes from humble origins, befriends the family after a house call to treat an ailing servant. It’s a friendship that never would have formed in the pre-war era of strict social hierarchies, and Dr. Faraday takes great pride in his association with the high-class Ayers.
Beginning with an inexplicable dog attack, a number of strange occurrences in the Hall suggest a supernatural presence. Though the occurrences become ever more violent, it remains unclear whether the ghostly presence is real or merely a figment of the family’s over-stressed imagination. Things become increasingly desperate, and the Ayers family, one by one, succumbs to the force—whether supernatural, socioeconomic, or imagined—that seems determined to break them. Through it all, Dr. Faraday is the steady voice of rationality, at first a welcome respite but becoming more and more ominous over time.
The gradual mental and financial collapse of the Ayers family parallels the disintegration of the British class system, and this interplay results in a rich story with many layers of meaning. The supernatural elements avoid cliché by their ambiguity. Is Dr. Faraday correct that there’s a rational explanation for everything? Or is Roderick right that an unseen malevolent force is threatening the family? Waters masterfully maintains this delicate ambiguity to the chilling and dramatic end. The Little Stranger is a quick-paced psychological thriller nested within an insightful social commentary. The combination is thrilling and intelligent.