My favorite setting for novels these days is fairly specific – post World War (either will do) England. Two favorites that cemented it for me were Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. I love how both wars forced British society, as unyielding and formal as it was, to accommodate deep social and economic changes – about things like women smoking, factory work and the (gasp!) death of the aristocracy.
Sarah Waters’ last book, The Night Watch, I absolutely adored. It too took place after the Blitz in London, about two women picking up the pieces of their lives as the city did, too. Her writing reminded me of Elizabeth Bowen, an English writer of the 1940s and 1950s: taut and sparse, but full of psychological intrigue.
Waters’ new book, The Little Stranger, also takes place after World War II, in a ruined county estate belonging to a penniless gentry family, the Antrys. The plot is straight out of a Gothic thriller, but set against the exhaustion of the post war period rather than the romanticism of the late nineteenth-century. The narrator is a country doctor, who grew up in the area, where his father was a tradesman and his mother worked as a nursemaid at the estate in question. (Sidenote: why are so many narrators doctors? There must be another career that signifies detached, clinical observation skills).
Dr. Faraday, as he is called, begins to care for the Antry family, coming to help them as they try to navigate an England that has no room, or even use, for their kind. As a self-proclaimed fan of the “post-war Britain” novels, I can say that Waters generally skirts on the surface with her characters, flushing them out beyond stereotypes but not quite letting the reader connect with them.
And (minor spoiler!), for a thriller-type of novel, the ending petered out. I detest scary things, so this was an investment, and I felt minorly annoyed that I didn’t get more scared. Nothing at all wrong with anti-climaxes, but rather a let-down after the heights of The Night Watch.