The Little Stranger, By Sarah Waters

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The Independent Culture

Like all the best ghost-stories, Sarah Waters's fifth novel is steeped in a particular time and place. Perhaps still haunted by her own previous book The Night Watch (2006), here the author returns to Forties Britain and a chillingly tale of "filthy" goings-on in a once lovely Georgian house.

It's 1947 and the National Health Service is on its way, but the novel's narrator, Dr Faraday, a provincial GP, hankers after a better class of patient. Summoned to treat a housemaid, Betty, at nearby Hundreds Hall, he seizes the chance to roam the now mouldering ancestral pile. Offering free treatment to the war-damaged son of the house, Roderick Ayres, Faraday finds himself befriended by Roderick's mother and painfully plain sister, Caroline.

As ever, Waters proves adept at capturing the emotional and social bonds that imprison her characters. Although Faraday is gratified by his acceptance at the hall, he finds himself simultaneously repelled and fascinated by the Ayres's outmoded snobbery. But while loss of funds might lie at the root of the family's malaise, it becomes obvious to the reader that there's something more malevolent afoot.

The events may be melodramatic, but her characters remain absorbingly real. Aside from Faraday's single abortive encounter with Roderick's disturbingly flat-sandaled sister, there is little overt sensuality. Genre bending rather than gender bending is the order of the day – though there are thrills aplenty to keep the midnight oil burning down to the wick.

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