You know how I love novellas - the shorter and punchier the better - and might have noticed that I was impressed by Susan Hill's The Beacon. Indeed, it's my Bloggers' Book of the Month choice for February, at the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green.
That made me pretty excited when Hill announced that her latest novella was coming out - A Kind Man is obviously being marketed in a similar style to The Beacon (although, tut tut Chatto and/or Windus for putting an apostrophe in Howards End is on the Landing on the dustjacket. You win back some of those points for Mark McEvoy's cover image. And for sending me a review copy - thanks!) If it could be as good as The Beacon, then I was very keen to read it. Also, fact fans, A Kind Man was published fifty years to the day after Hill's debut novel. Gosh!
A Kind Man is something of a deceptive title, for most of the novella, as we actually see the world through the eyes of that man's wife, Eve. In fact, the narrative opens with Eve making a solitary trip to an isolated graveyard - as the reader soon suspects, to visit the grave of her daughter, who died at three years old. We then move back to Eve's family, and her courtship with Tommy - the kind man of the title - is outlined, as is their marriage. Tommy's kindness is almost his only attribute, and certainly the most distinctive. He is made almost characterless in his ordinariness - rarely do we see anything from his perspective. This, of course, makes it all the more striking when we do; for instance, this excerpt from towards the end of the novel, retelling an event we had already seen from Eve's perspective very early on:
As he had grown up he had watched the young men around him find girls and make them wives and start families and had naturally felt that he would do so too but not understood how to choose. He had looked at some and they were pretty, at others and they were pert, at the ones with kind faces and the hard ones, the laughing ones, the sad and those old before they had had time to be young, but walking by the canal he had seen Eve and she was different. How she was and why and what made him know it, he had wondered every day since.
I do not want to spoil this novella. Too many reviews give too much away. Plot is not the only reason to read fiction, far from it, but the novella which spins on an axis around a central point should not have that point disclosed from the outset; it tips the story off-balance. Suffice to say that is outside of the ordinary, although Hill wisely does not allow it to change the style or genre of the work. If the event would have performed better in a novel by Barbara Comyns (oh, how I would love to have read Comyns' take on it!) then that is not Hill's fault; I can't think of any novelist who can approach the outlandish in so calm and involving a way as Comyns. Hill, however, finds the moral dilemmas caused by the strange and unusual (a thing Comyns would never do) and these form a central force of this beautifully forceful book.
Although this strange event would dominate most novels, and lingers longest in the mind, I think Hill is actually rather stronger at the more simple depictions of grief and mourning. These are emotions she dealt with brilliantly in In the Springtime of the Year, and in A Kind Man they play central roles, and are again shown convincingly and movingly - although (as is right) with a different slant from that previous novella. Everyday life and the dynamics of Eve being a wife, a sister, a daughter, a villager - these are the bread-and-butter of any work of fiction, and Hill is expert at them. I love Hill's appreciation of the countryside, which comes through in occasional unusual and evocative phrases.
As she rounded the peak, she looked up and ahead to the far slope where the sheep were with their lambs, dozens of them scattered about the hillside like scraps of paper thrown up in the air and allowed to settle anywhere.If these strengths fade into the background once the twist of the novella arrives, that is to be expected - but we should not forget how rare it is to find a novelist who excels at both unexpected, and more predictable, narrative events. Far too rare.
A Kind Man is sombre and wise; it is almost delicate in its subtlety, but at its depth is a fable as sturdy as they come. Sorry to be vague about it, but you'll thank me once you've read it. No other pen but Susan Hill's could have written this novella in this way - and I hope there will be more in the same mould.