The Little Stranger turns the Screw

This is my review of The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.

After a slow start, this well-written tale initially reeled in my interest with its evocation of life in rural England just after World War 2, with the conflict between nostalgia for an irrevocably declining way of life and the pressures for change. Waters captures well the appearance of cracks in the still rigid class divide, the physical decay of the elegant house and way of life which the impoverished local gentry could no longer afford to sustain, interesting details on rationing, reactions to the establishment of the NHS, the inescapable gossip grapevine, and so on. However, there was a fragmented nature to the plot, which with increasing frequency lapsed into a poltergeist-cum-Gothic horror fantasy. I am no fan of ghost stories, but I suspect that this one does not score very highly on the spine-chilling scale. Somewhere round page 160 I almost gave up, but resolved to continue since this is the choice of my local book group. Without giving too much away, the details of the hauntings which drove first Rod and then his mother mad seemed to be too silly for words, and insufficiently frightening, just ludicrous. What was slightly more alarming and intriguing was realisation of the way in which doctors, with possibly questionable motives, might react to people troubled by the supernatural by locking them up in asylums indefinitely for their own good.

Another point which concerned me was that, because of the author's decision to write in the first person through the eyes of the local doctor Faraday, many of the most dramatic scenes had to be reported to him which obviously detracted from the tension. Plus at times, the narration of these supernatural events entered into the minds of third parties and what they had thought and felt to an implausible degree.

I also disliked the disjunction between the development of subtle and intriguing relationships between characters and the ruthless killing off in bizarre circumstances of some key players.

The book improved towards the end with the course of Faraday's relationship with Caroline, and the revelation of his own character. There was an interesting final twist which caused me to reflect on the chain of supernatural events, Faraday's precise role in this and the ambiguous identity of the "little stranger" but, to conclude, I think Sarah Waters' talents could be better used.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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