A sinister ancestral home in an advanced state of decay, a family terrorized by its own history, and a narrator drawn into these orbits dominate this creepy novel from Waters (The Night Watch, 2006, etc.).
Shortly after the end of World War II, and nearly 30 years after first seeing magnificent Hundreds Hall as an awestruck ten-year-old, hardworking Doctor Faraday is summoned to the now-shabby Warwickshire estate to treat a young housemaid’s illness. Widowed Mrs. Ayres, her son Roderick, crippled and traumatized by injuries sustained during his wartime tenure as a RAF pilot, and bluff, pleasant daughter Caroline quickly accept Faraday as a friend, and he is initially enchanted by the family’s stoical perseverance as Hundreds Hall falls into ruin and farmlands are sold to pay off mounting debts. But worse awaits: The family’s gentle dog Gyp unaccountably and severely bites a visiting young girl, and neither Faraday’s continuing professional ministrations nor his growing love for plucky Caroline can save these reclusive prewar relics from the supernatural presences seemingly arisen from their past. Waters’ scrupulously engineered plot builds efficiently to a truly scary highpoint halfway through her long narrative. But tensions relax perilously, as the doctor’s repeated emergency visits to Hundreds Hall become almost risibly indistinguishable, and even crucial dramatic moments are muffled by fervent conversations among the four major characters. Furthermore, too many crucial pieces of information are relayed secondhand, as Faraday summarizes accounts of other people’s experiences. Still, Waters has extended her range agreeably, working in traditions established by Edgar Allan Poe, Sheridan le Fanu and Wilkie Collins, expertly teasing us with suggestive allusions to the classics of supernatural fiction. A subtle clue planted in one character’s given name neatly foreshadows, then explains, the Ayres family’s self-destructive insularity.
Flawed but nevertheless often gripping thriller from one of the most interesting novelists at work today.