When Daisy needs a nanny for her toddler son, she thinks 22-year-old Margaret Pride is perfect: sensible if a little old-fashioned and reserved, firm but immediately beloved by the child. Yet as the new nanny becomes established in the household, her behaviour doesn't always quite add up, and it becomes apparent that Margaret is not all she seems.
Perhaps I was influenced by having read the back blurb of the book, but from the very first pages I did not trust Margaret. Although narrator Daisy describes her in positive terms: "pretty," "warm," "eager to please," Margaret's own actions and words come across as stiff, stuffy and unnatural. Her first words are a firm triple negative: "No. Never. Not at all." She says "I am," and "I do not" instead of the more natural-sounding "I'm" and "I don't," and her emphasis on neatness - wanting to wear a uniform to work, shunning jeans - makes her seem much older than her young age. These small details, though subtle, put a distance between Margaret and the reader. She never quite seems comfortable, and as such, I never felt comfortable around her. As the book progresses, Margaret's behaviour seems strange, sometimes suspicious, but Daisy seems completely oblivious. I found myself wanting to shout at the narrator for not seeing through her nanny's facade.
McWilliam sets many parallels between the two women. Daisy, after all, used to be used as a nickname for Margaret, and as Margaret weasels her way into the heart of the household, Daisy retreats from the family. Margaret takes on a role as substitute mother for John, and mistress of the house. And it's not only Margaret who isn't all she seems. Daisy, in her seeming oblivion, is an unreliable narrator, and we learn more from what she shows, rather than what she tells us.
A Little Stranger is an intriguing book with a menacing atmosphere. At 145 pages, it is more of a novella than a novel, yet it still took me a while to read. It is long enough for Daisy to spend chapters navel-gazing, reflecting upon her past, and much of the prose is heavily tinted in purple. I felt at times that McWilliam tried too hard to be "literary." Daisy's world seems very old-fashioned, set in an upper middle-class home with nannies and other servants. Except for a few references to (for example) cassette tapes, I would have place this story in the early 20th century, between the wars.