Chosen by a book club I belong to, due to the volumes of praise attached to the front and back cover, I anticipated a more compelling story than The Little Stranger turned out to provide. I’ll try to explain why.
The Little Stranger is described as a modern gothic novel. The author inserts story elements that cannot be explained by standard logic––the vision of a ghost and events for which there is no rational explanation and for which Waters provides no justification.
Readers may feel comfortable with unresolved gothic tropes. I don’t. The key question is whether these elements are critical in determining the story’s outcome. If they are, all the more reason that I, as a reader, feel they need to be explained either by providing a rational cause or by a theory that says in this world, ghosts exist. In The Little Stranger the ghost plays a considerable role as the occupants of a Georgian mansion are overcome one by one. The assumption is the reader will accept that such things happen and ghosts playing the kind of role they play in that place is okay.
This leads to my biggest complaint about The Little Stranger––the death of a character at the end of the story who had faced the ravages and decay of life in Hundreds Hall and had seemingly won out by making plans to leave. Waters wants us to believe that the house won out after convincing us that the character––Caroline––had not succumbed to the ghost. I found that ending implausible and disappointing.
The cause of my not so positive reading may be attributed to the fact that I usually don’t read “modern Gothic,” but I don’t buy that explanation. Any book––no matter the genre––should win over readers by convincing us the world the author has created has internal consistency, the characters act in ways we can accept, and the outcome is not driven by some illogical force. The Little Stranger didn’t accomplish any of those things for me.
Having said all that Waters should be given an A for effort. Her descriptions brought that world to life, especially the mansion, its rooms and atmosphere; her major character, despite his obvious flaws, is believable and her portrait of life in that era seems consistent. A different ending might have satisfied my desire for character over plot consistency.