I will say this ahead of time….I tend to find Sarah Waters’s novels to be pretty good in general, if a little either overpromised or underwhelming.
And this one is more or less the same. The setup is very good for a lot of reasons. The story is Dr Faraday, a country doctor who sees to a small community also stops in at the local estate, with which he shares a small history–his mother was once on the staff there. The family is left to three remaining members, an older mother, the daughter around 30, and the war tattered son Rod. It’s the 1950s, it’s the eve of the welfare state, and the former aristocratic life, like the very house itself is crumbling. Not only does the family no longer have the means, the patronage that estates of this size once provided is now being handed over to the state.
Also, it’s a ghost story.
Dr Faraday is a commoner who has an opening to this otherwise closed off life and as he begins treating Roderick’s leg injury from the war, he becomes aware that Rod sees something….maybe illusions/delusions or maybe a ghostly presence. And as a kind of romance develops with Caroline the daughter, Faraday gets pulled more and more into the family affairs.
Like I said, it’s ultimately a little underwhelming. The story is solid, and the writing is (as is always the case with Waters) perfectly good, but there’s something missing here. I even really like the Victorian storyline cast upon WWI themes, but totally lost in the post-WWII era where what feels “might be lost” is actually already long gone. But unfortunately the antecedents and influences on this novel are too incredibly on the nose to work as well as is hoped. Yes, Henry James….so why not name a character after one of his novels? Yes, Poe….yes, Shirley Jackson…..yes yes yes. It doesn’t work as well as it should because it’s trying too hard.