I need to confess right away, before I begin.
About halfway through reading I was starting to think The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters at 500 pages was too long for me by quite a few.
No question about it, I hit a wall and almost stalled.
But then something funny happened and I kept reading, suddenly what I'd read had its raison d'etre and I stormed through to the finish, raced across the line but still with a bit of a 'what was that all about' thing going on in my mind.
So a few days later and much thinking along the way, I'd had plenty of time to ponder what malevolent forces were at work in this book and I started to see The Little Stranger much more clearly. It's been a serious temptation, and one resisted, to read the reviews and erudite thinking out there because I really wanted to arrive at my own conclusions about this book and trust that it would happen eventually which it has.
Several weeks on and I think it will be one of the year's great reads for me because this is a book that gives up its secrets slowly and deliberately and at unexpected moments. Suddenly something in the book will flash back into my mind and with it a new revelation dawns. I will probably still be thinking of things come Christmas, but time to share my thoughts and move on with my reading.
I've also scoured and hopefully purged this post of potential spoilers, always a challenge when a book offers so much to talk about.
The setting is the late-1940s, a nation exhausted by conflict and Hundreds Hall a shabby, gentrified rural estate in Warwickshire; one of those that, despite beckoning destitution, is still managing to employ servants in those post-war years of recovery and austerity.
Everyone will have a different vision of Hundreds Hall in their mind's eye, in mine this sad old house, probably considerably smaller, but woven inextricably into my life and my memory.
Back in the 1980s and for fourteen happy years we lived in one of a little row of six Delabole slate-hung, terraced cottages that had at one time been the servants' quarters for this house on the outskirts of Tavistock. Our first home, we looked across to the 'big house' and we loved those links to the past, had we housed the cook or the gardener?
We'd often wonder.
It was heartbreaking to watch its decline.The pillage was horrific on the day the house finally went to auction, land snapped up by developers and the soul of the house, fireplaces, doors and other original features, ripped out and in the hands of London dealers before sunset.
The Ayres family of Hundreds Hall, widowed mother and children Roderick and Caroline are clinging onto the wreckage of the old order for grim death. There are many ghosts to meet throughout this book and this past life of decadence and snobbery is one of them.
Introduced into the milieu is local bachelor GP Dr Faraday who has been known up at the 'big house' since childhood when his mother was a nursemaid there. This of course involves a transition from servant quarters to the minor gentry that GPs are becoming, but with the establishment of the NHS looming it could be a few rungs back down the ladder for Dr Faraday. Accustomed now to a hard-earned private income he fears a forced return to a social order he has done his utmost to escape.
I had never quite realized how threatened GPs had felt about the arrival of the NHS until the 60th anniversary last year revealed the history and the depth of that dissent. Sarah Waters discreetly taps into all this from many angles and it's fascinating.
Another ghost exposed and a deeply intuitive and carefully observed look at the inherent dangers and difficulties of crossing those social boundaries 1940's style.
Dr Faraday ever the realist, the pragmatic medical man not to be fooled by the fanciful carryings-on of the eccentric upper classes when he has the textbook of psychiatry to hand, and I found myself torn between wanting to believe both what was happening to the residents of Hundreds Hall but also hanging onto his common sense assertions of incredulous disbelief in any remotely paranormal occurrence.
It was all very cleverly created turmoil for this reader.
Sarah Waters builds up layer after layer of narrative with a meticulous attention to minute detail, she is not going to be hurried in the telling of her story and the benefits of this only became apparent to me days and weeks later. The sense of ominous doom rises inexorably with a gathering sense of menace and unease, then, just as you're at screaming pitch, it crescendos, subsides and builds again throughout the book and, as I rounded each bend like a wrung-out dishcloth, I could but wonder what lay in wait.
Without giving too much away, something has to give as the cauldron of fear at Hundreds reaches boiling point and keep an eye out for the mad man in the attic to counter all those mad women we are used to. There's even some peeling yellow wallpaper in the house which Sarah Waters apparently offered as an invocation of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's decorating tastes.
It was with some trepidation that Dr Faraday opened the locked door to the childhood bedroom (with me right behind looking over his shoulder but in a better position to do a runner first if needs be ) where a terrified family have incarcerated one of their equally terrified number, and I could only imagine that Dr Faraday was quite enjoying this wielding of medical power, a moment of social control over those he had always viewed as his betters.
So the little stranger continues to wreak havoc around the household and the mystery is whether this is ...well that's your plot-lot for now.
Layer upon layer of the ghosts of history sealed beneath the decaying walls of this fortress of the aristocracy. As the paint and paper peel away so little gobbets of shame and guilt are released; unpleasant and messy reminders of a past whose cracks have been papered over but are now slowly and cruelly exposed for all to see as the family fall on very hard times indeed. There's a wonderful moment when Caroline tries to patch things up with drawing pins and you just know that no amount of superglue is going to hold back what will out.
The walls of the bastion must tumble in many more ways than one and the masses must effectively storm the ramparts somehow and Sarah Waters' handles this peaceful social revolution with immense and understated control.
If you've read The Little Stranger you will know the significance of this 1980's view of 'our' big house.
As her known world crumbles around her, Mrs Ayres can only look on helplessly and finger the decaying photos, the last remaining ghosts of her past.
The ghosts to be exorcised are many, the means to do so various and in the end I knew that Sarah Waters had done it all differently but with such consummate skill and precision that I can only apologize now for doubting that about half way through the book.