When is a ghost story not a ghost story?

The Little Stranger
by Sarah Waters

Once again I’m sad to say that I’m a little disappointed by an author I had invariably liked. Not that this is by any means a bad book, it just wasn’t great.

What it is is a long book, and it takes a few hundred pages for the story to get going. The narrator is solid, sensible bachelor Dr Faraday and he tells the story the way you imagine he might tell any anecdote: dully, with too much dry detail and no distinction between what’s important and what isn’t. This actually turns out to be key, but that doesn’t take away the dullness of the style.

It’s certainly cleverly written, with hints and clues and red herrings aplenty. But for what purports to be a chilling ghost story, I was not frightened or spooked once.

The story is set shortly after the Second World War. Dr Faraday has worked hard to rise from humble beginnings to being a village doctor. He has always been fascinated by Hundreds Hall, the mansion at the centre of the local landed estate, and when he is called to a patient there he is saddened to see that the place is in serious decline, largely due to the sagging finances of the once-great Ayres family. The doctor gradually befriends the three remaining members of the family and records the increasingly strange goings-on at the hall. He is torn between finding a logical physical explanation, a medical psychological explanation or an entirely supernatural explanation for it all.

Which might have been the basis for something fascinating indeed. And to her credit, Waters did surprise me with some of the directions the story goes in. But for me nothing can make up for dull narration and, while a few quiet slips from the narrator near the end made me look at the story rather differently, with more respect, that couldn’t undo the experience of slogging through hundreds of pages semi-bored.

First published in Great Britain in 2009 by Virago Press. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2009.