This was my first Sarah Waters novel which, like all too many books, has been waiting patiently on my shelf to be read. All her work seems to have attracted prizes and awards and this book was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2009. It turns out to be very much more than a 20th Century ghost story.
Set in the period just after the end of World War II, the narrator is a bachelor GP in rural Warwickshire at that time when the National Health Service was still to be created and a trip to the doctor cost real money. Dr Faraday knew Hundreds Hall from the time his mother took him behind the scenes at an Empire Day picnic hosted there by the Ayres family in 1919. She was a former maid servant there and her backstairs friends gave him jelly to eat. Now, a generation later, he stands in for his partner when there is an urgent summons from Hundreds to treat an ailing young maid. He is shocked by the transformation of the once stately home that now stands dilapidated in untended grounds. Widowed Mrs Ayres lives there now with her son and daughter. He is war-wounded and shell-shocked while the daughter merits the damning description of ‘handsome’. Apart from that, there is nothing really wrong with the maid who is simply miserable with the gloomy house and oppressed with the feeling that there is something strange inhabiting Hundreds.
We learn that an older sister, whom Faraday saw back in 1919, died not long after that and although the two later children are loved they are not missed like the dear-departed Susan. The Ayres are by now living off their capital and sales of land from the estate. Son Roderick manages the estate and the farm but the stress of all this on his war-damaged body and spirit are taking their toll. Faraday offers Roderick experimental electric therapy for his leg and, on the excuse that he will write a paper about the results for a learned journal, declines to accept payment, realising the family do not have the spare cash for a course of private treatment. He is welcomed by mother and daughter and, not to put too fine a point on it, soon seems to be getting his feet under the table at Hundreds Hall.
Events build to a climax as Roderick seems to be just as obsessed as the young maid about ‘something’ malign in the Hall that has it in for the family. Mrs Ayres decides to hold a ‘drinks party’ for local landed gentry including the nouveaux riches neighbours with a young daughter who is brought along too. Then there is a tragedy when the Ayres ageing dog suddenly attacks the child who, despite the prompt action of Faraday, is likely to be scarred for life. The Ayres stave off the threat of police involvement by agreeing to destroy the much loved dog. But troubles do not cease.
Inexplicable scorch marks appear in Roderick’s room as though someone or something had applied a blowtorch to the walls, sometimes in inaccessible places. Then a fire breaks out in his bedroom and study. Working only on logic and observation, Faraday becomes convinced Roderick is losing his reason and he is soon removed to a private clinic; another heavy drain on the family’s finances. As Christmas approaches, Faraday invites the daughter, Caroline, to the Hospital Ball where she enjoys herself and drinks a fair amount. In the car on the way home, she seems to be inviting Faraday to make a pass but when he does she panics and fights him off. Although this casts a pall over the evening, Faraday now finds he genuinely desires Caroline and proposes. For a while, they are more or less engaged.
Complicated? Since this blogger does not do plot spoilers, I will say only that one tragedy then succeeds another and one night, returning from a night visit, Faraday pulls up at the secluded spot where his advances were earlier repulsed. Exhausted, he falls asleep and dreams he is visiting Hundreds. The events that take place that same night at Hundreds are unknown to him until his partner searches him out in the morning to reveal the second tragedy. In those days before mobile phones and GPS, a doctor has only to say he has been up all night with a difficult case and no one questions him, but he is shocked and the reader is intrigued by the details of that tragedy as witnessed and recounted by the maid up at the Hall. Are we to read something into this?
The quality of Waters’s writing and the way she evokes a period before her time, but that I knew well in terms of the events and the language, the manners and class attitudes that ruled everyone’s behaviour then, are convincingly recreated. The fact that the involved reader has to make up his or her mind about what is really happening drew me along, page after page. The battle between the rational and the irrational is fought out to the very last page. Let me know if, at the end, you think Faraday is someone you would let your daughter marry.