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.