Fans of the terrific, twice Booker-shortlisted writer Sarah Waters will have an eerie sensation as they read her new novel, The Little Stranger, out today. The haunted house story unfolds in Warwickshire at Hundreds Hall just after the war, and with her usual mastery Waters evokes an atmosphere of pervading gloom and declining fortunes. England is still rationing, the Labour government is taxing, and the formerly grand Ayres family -- widowed matriarch, outdoorsy daughter Caroline, injured son Roderick -- is left with not much more than their name and its homonyms: putting on airs, lacking heirs, she who errs. Reduced to employing a single maid, the frightened, fourteen year-old Betty, the family faces more humiliating privations: They turn off the electricity despite the creeping icy fog, they sell off land inside the estate wall to the encroaching developer. Worse is on the way: an angry ghost, madness, suicide, murder.
Enjoyable as that sounds, readers will need time to adjust to the shock of a Sarah Waters novel narrated by a straight man. The plodding Dr. Faraday's mother was once a maid at Hundreds and now he prides himself on having accidentally become the family's physician and only friend. Partly because of his ambling narration, readers may become restless when, by page 100, then 200, then 300, the magnificent Waters plot reversals of Fingersmith or Affinity still haven't arrived. And why doesn't the tomboyish Caroline, who becomes so animated at a dance when she's reunited with her fellow war Wrens, hurry up and come out? Instead, she becomes engaged to a man (for the promise of London). Her sexuality remains obscure -- guessable, but debatable -- to the end. Though the ghostly tricks continue, the only "surprise" twist, long foreseen, doesn't materialize until page 463, in the book's final paragraph.
Novelists like to show their range and they certainly shouldn't feel limited to characters who resemble them. If Waters' decision here seems disappointing, it's primarily because top-notch literary novels of lesbian life are so rare, while scary straight stories seem plentiful. [Insert joke about NYT wedding announcements.] I also found the book long-winded. Even Henry James, who relished the roundabout route, knew to keep The Turn of the Screw short. But I never read spooky fiction and it may well be that it requires ample flesh to make the little bones of the paranormal feel plausible.