With this grippingly readable novel, Sarah Waters takes another step away from the sequence of successful books set in Victorian England (Tipping the Velvet, Affinity and Fingersmith), which made her name. Her last book, The Night Watch, was set in London during the Second World War. This one takes place in and around a country house in Warwickshire in the late 1940s, a time of great, and sometimes painful, social change. Once again Waters, a gifted writer whose great skill is to recreate a period tone without writing pastiche, has done careful research. This time, though, she has chosen to use a classic form of popular fiction, the ghost story. In plot and atmosphere she has plainly been influenced by masters of the genre, including Conan Doyle and M. R. James.
Her narrator is a country doctor, Dr Faraday. One day, he is called out to Hundreds, the big house of the neighbourhood, where a 14-year-old maid, the only remaining servant, has a stomach ache. He has been there once before, a small boy taken by his mother, a former nursery maid, on a below-stairs visit. The house made a powerful impression on him, and he had so wanted a piece of it that he gouged a plaster acorn from a moulding with a penknife. Waters creates an atmosphere of unease, both with this suggestive memory and with the discovery that the girl is not ill but frightened. Something about the house, she insists, isn’t right.
This visit draws Faraday into a friendly relationship with the Ayres family, despite the slight awkwardness caused by his background. Waters evokes a post-war England where the old hierarchies are crumbling, but still powerful. Under the Labour government, landed gentry like the Ayres are literally as well as metaphorically losing ground, under attack from property developers, taxes and the nouveau riche. The son and heir, Roderick, has returned from the war physically and mentally scarred and struggles to keep control of the family’s affairs. His mother and sister Caroline gamely patch and mend and keep up standards, while the roof leaks and the damp rises.
Dr Faraday, somewhat to his own surprise, finds himself wanting to help. He persuades Roderick to try a new treatment, the application of electric current, to his wasted muscles.
Even more surprisingly he starts to find tall, intelligent Caroline, despite her thick legs and appalling dress sense, attractive. This is the first Waters novel without even a hint of lesbianism. However, there is no heterosexual passion in it either.
Then, beginning with a horrible, yet brilliantly described, incident when a dog bites a child, the story gathers pace. With delicate, unnerving skill Waters presents a sequence of inexplicable happenings which suggest that some dark force is loose at Hundreds. Inanimate objects move; defunct bells ring; scribbles appear behind cupboards; an old speaking tube screams aloud. Roderick, already nervous as a result of the war, breaks first. Dr Faraday arranges for him to be institutionalised. Mrs Faraday is next; tormented, apparently, by memories of a long-dead daughter, she too seems to lose her reason and kills herself. Then it is Caroline’s turn. Faraday gradually loses the battle to convince her that all these disasters have a rational, medical explanation. Eventually, despite the understanding between them that they will marry, he loses her.
As Faraday becomes increasingly drawn into the mysterious events at Hundreds, he finds his own deepest beliefs beginning to crumble like the fabric of the house and the confidence and status of the Ayres family.
Waters has researched the state of psychiatric knowledge at the time, and in a series of discussions with a colleague, Faraday begins to realise that there may be a way to link superstitions about ghosts and poltergeists with medical science after all. Mental illness, hallucinations and self-inflicted wounds could explain everything. Waters keeps us guessing right to the end. With great subtlety, she suggests that within any one of her characters, including Faraday, could lurk enough frustration, guilt and resentment to generate the destructive energy tearing the family to pieces.
In the end, the house is abandoned, and only Faraday remains. He has what perhaps he wanted all along, the house for himself. When he lets himself in and wanders the empty rooms, he sometimes almost sees something evil out of the corner of his eye. He is almost certain it is only his own reflection.