Posts Tagged ‘Susan Hill’

20140318-145848.jpg

I do not generally choose war books. In all honesty, had I come across this book with this cover in a shop or library I would probably have skipped over it. I like Susan Hill; I dislike war. I am particularly hesitant about The Great War novels written recently: I’m uncomfortable with the glorification of war which can appear; and equally uncomfortable with the indelicate emphasis on the gore and violence; and no more comfortable with a romanticised vision of the war. And I worry that, with the centenary, we may get a lot more of it.

So, no, to sum up, this is not a book that I would have selected naturally.

Which goes to show how our preconceptions can mislead us: this is a powerfully moving book about friendship and love within war. It is not about war.

We get a snapshot of John Hilliard’s life between his recuperation from one leg injury until he returns to the front line and sustains another leg injury. The first injury is relatively minor and sends Hilliard home to recuperate; the second is significantly more serious and sends him back to England for the rest of the war. During this period, Hilliard is introduced to Lieutenant David Barton, a new and innocent officer in the army, and the friendship, the relationship – and, yes, the love – between these two is the heart of the novel.

Reviews on Goodreads – and, it appears from Hill’s afterword to the novel, many comments since the book’s publication – seem unduly obsessed with these men’s relationship as a homosexual one. It saddens me that some people think that that’s even worth considering! It wouldn’t change the depth of feeling those two men had for one another; it wouldn’t alter the beauty of their relationship; it wouldn’t vary the strength that each man drew from the other. I happily recognise it as a form of love – and the Greeks knew that the emotions we call love encompass a range of varied and different forms. And – seriously – if we accept that theirs is a loving friendship or a loving relationship, all this fuss is about what physical and sexual acts may have occurred between two men who – and here’s the important bit – never existed!

So yes, these men love each other. They meet in unassuming but reasonably peaceful conditions in a rest camp away from the frontline. Truths are told which have been repressed before. Intimacies forged. The coldness of Hilliard’s family is replaced by the warmth of Barton’s.

Love is returned to over and over in the novel: Hilliard’s love for his sister is warmly and tenderly described as a memory and her transformation into a coldly formal wife is as heart breaking in its way as his love for Barton is heart warming.

But ultimately and inevitably the war re-asserts itself: Barton is exposed to increasing levels of death and destruction; his innocence and good nature, which had thawed Hilliard’s weariness, is tested and tarred by the increasing violence he witnesses as they are moved closer to the front line.

The story also explores the power of writing: Hilliard’s inclusion in the correspondence between Barton and his family and their sharing of books at the front helped to forge their intimacy to such an extent that, on his visit to Barton’s home, Hilliard had a beautiful sense of returning home which contrasted beautifully with the sense of exclusion and alienation Hill creates when he stays at his own parents’ house in the opening pages.

This is not, however, an easy book to read. The first few pages recounting Hilliard’s final day of recuperation follow a convoluted chronology as the past (occasionally distant and occasionally recent) intrude upon the present. Whilst this lends a lyrical dimension to the writing which I loved, it doesn’t aid reading – although the sense of Hilliard as being ripped out of time and adrift was absolutely effective.

The other issue which might put some readers off is the extent to which this novel relies on dialogue. The narrative descriptions are effective but relatively sparse (in marked contrast to Hill’s gothic novel The Woman In Black). Dialogue is – as I say to my students – really hard to make authentic and Hill succeeds in the vast majority of the novel but there are the occasional overly philosophical expository moments which aren’t out of keeping with the characters but felt perhaps a tad forced. It’s no surprise that the reason I did pick it up is because it’s on the AS English Language and Literature course in their spoken language unit!

In any event, this is a deeply moving and tragically painful book. As it acquired its name from the Wilfred Owen poem of the same name, here it is!

Strange Meeting
BY WILFRED OWEN

It seemed that out of the battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which Titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall;
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand fears that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
“Strange friend,” I said, “Here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said the other, “Save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something has been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress,
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery;
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .”

I’ve enjoyed various Susan Hill novels: The Woman in Black and The Little Stranger in particular and so it was that I was looking forward to picking up on the Simon Serrailler crime series which I hadn’t come across before. In honesty, I picked up A Question of Identity first which is the seventh in the series first and then – before starting that one – picked up Various Haunts Of Men to see where the series started.

This is a delightfully and unashamedly British crime novel. It’s not even set in London but in the leafy Cathedral town of Lafferton to which our main protagonist, Freya Graffham, has retreated after escaping a difficult marriage.

The town of Lafferton is familiar and comforting but I was expecting and hoping for something more from it somehow. More character; more presence; more atmosphere. The Hill and its brooding Wern Stones and its various dog walkers, joggers and cyclists was lovely: knowing how ritualised such people are with a strange balance between icy aloofness and civil courtesy, Hill created these encounters effectively. I, personally, would have liked the cathedral itself to have had a more prominent role, looming over or protecting the city. We visit it occasionally and glimpse it through windows but I’d have liked to have felt it.

There are some elements that jar a little too. The neighbouring village of Starly, in which had bloomed a New Age community of acupuncturists and psychic healers, hypnotherapists and a psychic surgeon did not strike me as a realistic community and the alternative therapies sub-plot was not resolved. In fact some very significant issues – and the concurrent efforts put into both the writing and reading – were left just hanging. Completely. Perhaps Hill – who I know is a very competent and careful writer, a narrative craftswoman – has left these threads to be picked up in the subsequent book or books. But, judging this as a standalone novel, I felt just a little cheated. Other themes were similarly touched upon, I suspect, to be revisited later: the relationship between Simon Serrailler’s parents; the absent third triplet; his relationship with women.

In terms of plot, the novel revolves around the disappearance of a number of women (and a man and a dog). It’s not until halfway through that these disappearances are even confirmed as anything suspicious and the novel does span a period of perhaps six months.

It was a pleasant change that Hill eschewed the current vogue of hyper-violent death and torture described in intimate and graphic detail. Even when death does occur, Hill is discrete and the violence is minimal and implicit.

It is true that the killer is fairly easy to predict here. From about half way through. But I don’t think that was the point of the novel: it is that very British thing, a character-driven novel. Simon Serrailler, the eponymous character of the series, is only really seen through the prism of other people’s eyes: Graffham’s or his sister, Cat Deerbon’s. He therefore remained distant and enigmatic and we only really heard his voice a couple of times in the final pages. He was charming without being a charmer; he broke hearts but was no womaniser; he was cool and controlled but still passionate and inspired passion in others.

This was not a breath taking book but it was a good read and a solid introduction to an intriguing set of characters. There are obvious parallels with Morse or Midsomer Murders but Lafferton and it’s collection of sympathetic and eccentric and enigmatic characters are distinctive.

Will I continue the series?

There’s certainly enough there to intrigue me enough to keep going!

20131207-223222.jpg

Miniature review due to absence of Internet and wifi. In fact, only now possible because phone can – sometimes – get some reception…

Somewhat uncomfortably, I finished reading this book this morning. At about 7:30. As my 12 week old daughter lay asleep in my arms. It made the final chapter particularly unnerving!

This is so much better than the Daniel Radcliffe film! A much more evocative style, a much more effectively chilling tale and a far more engaging protagonist! Sorry, Radcliffe, but no!

As a teacher, Hill is ideal as a conscious and deliberate writer who has very carefully constructed, crafted and perhaps at times contrived and overwrought her writing to recreate the style of the nineteenth century Gothic genre and Arthur Kipps’ voice. The opening paragraph running like this

It was nine-thirty on Christmas Eve. As I crossed the long entrance hall of Monk’s Piece on my way from the dining room, where we had just enjoyed the first of the happy festive meals, towards the drawing room and the fire around which my family were now assembled, I paused and then, as I often do in the course of an evening, went to the front door, opened it and stepped outside.

contains almost every grammatical structure a GCSE student needs: simple and complex and compound constructions; dependent clauses embedded with subordinate clauses; prepositional phrases; subordinating and co-ordinating conjunctions. It is a grammar geek smorgasbord! And a useful ‘hunt-the-main-verb’ teaching tool!

The main plot is followed by the film broadly (although Arthur Kipps’ family circumstances are butchered by the film): as a politely and hopeful member of a firm of solicitors, Arthur is sent to attend the funeral and organise the papers of Mrs Drablow of Eel Marsh House in a distant northern town. A woman in black appears at the funeral and Hill masterfully ratchets up the tension in a series of escalatingly horrific incidents.

Hill is a masterful writer. Her settings are wonderful and descriptions fantastic but it is the control she demonstrates which make her so powerful. At no point does she sacrifice atmosphere for gore; nor tension for explication.

20130929-171055.jpg