Like the film The Sixth Sense was when it came out, Sarah Waters’ most recent novel, The Little Stranger, is the subject of heated discussion. Not around the workplace watercooler, but in the blogosphere. With the movie, discussion was all around the “how.” How did Shamalyan fool us all? Did he cheat? Many people saw the The Sixth Sense multiple times just to see how it was done. My opinion – brilliantly! And no, he didn’t cheat.
With The Little Stranger, “how?” is still an important question, but “who?” and “what?” figure in prominently as well. The novel is set in 1947 and features a haunted house. Or is it? The protagonist, Dr. Faraday, has an affinity for the house that goes back to his childhood, when his mother was a maid there. Now the Ayres family has fallen on hard times, the father is dead, the mother remaining genteel while one by one, their family heirlooms and the family land is sold to keep the family afloat. A son damaged in the war, Roderick Ayres, and a somewhat masculine-yet-lovely daughter, Caroline, complete the family. Mrs. Bazeley, a cook, and Betty, a maid, serve the family. Class consciousness – Dr. Faraday has more in common with Betty than the family – permeates the story and colors the plot.
All is not well within the family, but on first meeting, they are managing well, maintaining healthy relationships and, although poor, are plucky. Soon upon Dr. Faraday’s introduction to the Ayres, though, things take a turn for the worse. His medical care for Roddy – a kind of electrical stimulation and manual massage of his injured leg – improves his physical health, but at the same time, his mind starts to go, developing a kind of paranoia that if he does not keep watch 24 hours a day, objects within the house become animated and behave malevolently. Given his history of depression and his experiences in the war, Roddy’s story is discounted by Dr. Faraday… but there appears to be physical evidence. Betty, only 14, feels a presence in the house. Also discounted due to her youth. Then their old dog, kind and gentle for years, rips the face off an annoying girl. Provoked? By the girl? Or by a spirit?
The suspense gathers and soon the reader begins to doubt and wonder about everything. When multiple characters witness the same event from different perspectives, does that add credibility? Does it strain credibility that Dr. Faraday insists on taking a hard-headed, no-nonsense approach to all the bizarre goings-on when commonsense might say, who cares what the reason is, let’s get out of here! The more astute reader (or at least those who think like I do) begin to wonder about Dr. Faraday himself. All was well at the Ayres home until he showed up, at which point the mayhem began. It is as if Dr. Faraday – like his electrical current machine – is stimulating the household to a bad effect. Roderick obsesses about the safety of his family, lessens the strain through alcohol, and ultimately has to be shut up in a madhouse (to which he clings, refusing to come home). Mrs. Ayres, always guilty and lonely for her dead first-born daughter, Susan, becomes convinced that Susan is haunting her. She puts up with physical injury – rips and bruises of her skin – she believes are caused by Susan, who is punishing her. We are to think she is doing this to herself, but there is evidence that she is not. And Caroline, who shrinks away from physical contact with Dr. Faraday and would likely have remained unmarried, seems to cling to him, especially after learning that he may be giving up his practice in their small town and moving to London.
Ultimately, the entire Ayres family comes to a bad end. All dead, all gone. Caroline’s last word is reported to be “You!” just before she falls or leaps from a railing to her death. To whom is she referring? According to Dr. Faraday, who is shocked when he hears this all, second hand, he was asleep in his car out in the lane near the house, all unknowing as the woman he could not give up lay dying.
Re-reading The Little Stranger while viewing Dr. Faraday as an unreliable narrator does not resolve all the issues, but some ambiguity is reasonable. If you frame the Ayres’ story with Dr. Faraday’s – who steals a bit of the house to keep with him when he first visits as a child, and is the only living visitor to the house, wandering the still-beautiful ruin – it is possible to see that within Dr. Faraday is the genesis of the family’s destruction.