Family's dysfunction is a medical mystery

By Clea Simon
Globe Correspondent / May 11, 2009
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Something is very wrong at Hundreds Hall. Dr. Faraday notices that as soon as he answers the call to the grand country estate. For starters, the maid he's been asked to see is clearly not ill, and although he diagnoses young Betty's stomach upset as acute homesickness, she insists that she has good reason to want to leave. "It isn't like a proper house at all!," she says. "I think I shall die of fright sometimes."

Even Dr. Faraday can see that things aren't like they used to be, 30 years earlier, when his mother was a maid at the grand Georgian mansion and he was allowed to sneak in during a holiday. The once-proud family has fallen on hard times, and the house itself is in serious disrepair. But then, World War II has just ended and England is still reeling. If there's anything more to what the young maid believes - or to a series of suspicious accidents at the old house - Dr. Faraday is too much a modern, self-made man to give it credence.

That's the set-up for "The Little Stranger," a marvelous and truly spooky historical novel by Sarah Waters, author of such past-set gems as "Tipping the Velvet" and "Fingersmith." But while those books focused more on the Victorian underworld, here the London-based author returns to themes she explored in her last book, 2006's "The Night Watch," zeroing in on a particular moment of flux in British history.

In the new book, the war-based turmoil of her previous novel has ended, and the country is finding its way in the aftermath. The sons of servants are now doctors, and the old system of landed gentry is giving way to industrialized modernity. (That young maid wants to join her friends in factory work.) And even as the class system is staggering, so too is the country's populace. Roderick Ayres, the master of Hundreds, survived the crash of his fighter plane but lives with constant pain, horribly scarred. His sister Caroline, never a beauty, seems doomed to spinsterhood with so many of England's young men dead or disabled. And their mother appears to be stuck in the past, reliving the era of Hundreds' prime - and her own.

Indeed, at first these realistic stresses seem responsible for the apparent hauntings at the old house. Keeping up their mother's Miss Havisham-type illusions, for example, may be what precipitates a tragedy involving the family's old dog and some social-climbing guests. And when other strange accidents begin to pile up, Dr. Faraday's medical mind finds rational reasons for them: shell shock and depression. Perhaps, readers can't help feeling, such a decline is due. After all, we learn, Dr. Faraday's own family was destroyed by Hundreds, his mother possibly worked to death in the effort to elevate her son above his hereditary class.

But something larger than life seems to be at work, and the spooky happenings at Hundreds are only set off by Faraday's scientific cynicism. As a strange spot on an old and mouldering ceiling takes on a sinister appearance and bodies begin to accumulate, Waters's precise and chilling prose lets Dr. Faraday have his way with the story. As he slowly lets us in on his disappointments and dreams, we become more aware of the old prejudices and disappointments that have made him the man - and the narrator - he is. Determined to unravel the mystery of Hundreds Hall, and perhaps to better understand his own past, Dr. Faraday comes alive in "The Little Stranger," ably serving as a guide between two worlds, or maybe more.

Clea Simon is the author of several novels, most recently "Probable Claws."

By Sarah Waters
Riverhead Books, pp. 464, $26.95