Posts Tagged ‘Susan Hill’

EmilyBooks of the Year

December 19, 2011

Here, for your delectation, are my favourite books of the year. That is, books that I read over the past year, rather than books that were published over the past year. It must be strange and exhausting to read only the newest of books. I have to admit that I find those ‘books of the year’ lists that one reads in the newspapers at this time of year a bit dull. Lists are only really interesting when one understands the rationale behind the selections. So this is less of a listy-list (listless, ha!) and more of a chatty, discursive one.

Looking back, I suppose this year’s reading has been dominated by old women. This was my year of Jane Gardam – first The Man in the Wooden Hat, then Old Filth, then (again) – to calm pre-wedding jangles – A Long Way from Verona. And to keep Jane Gardam company, there was also Diana Athill’s Instead of a Letter and Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. All brilliant books. All written with elegance and subtlety and quite brilliant matter-of-fact wit. Some of these had a certain ‘coming-of-age’ element, which I inevitably find irresistible. For that very reason, other books of the year were Monica Dickens’ sublime Mariana and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle – both of which can happily be described as ‘hot-water-bottle fiction’, i.e. blissfully comforting and snug. They would probably make it on to my desert island books.

It’s also been a year of reading rather a lot about houses, thanks to the novel I’m writing about a derelict house. Particularly good books, in which houses feature rather prominently, have been (as well as the already mentioned Mariana) Bowen’s Court, Howards End, The Small Hanand Rebecca. Bowen’s Court is written in such a unique voice, and is rather long, and I read it rather concentratedly (often in the bath) that by the end I felt like I’d made a new friend. It helped that Elizabeth Bowen had told me so much about her family and her own personal history during the course of her book. I long to read more by her and often think back to that very great voice booming through my head in the echoey bathroom and wish I could listen to it some more. I suspect I might revisit her in my Christmas reading.

Howards End was every bit as brilliant as I expected it to be. I really do think that Forster is one of the very best writers. Although that’s a terribly unfashionable opinion to hold. And Rebecca. Well I suppose Rebecca, like Mariana, combined a house book with a coming-of-age story. Winning combination as far as I’m concerned. Someone famously said of it that it’s the only book where the murderer gets away with it. That throws a rather alarming light on it.

The other classics that I’ve really adored this year have been Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig and a newly-published collection of Edward Thomas’s poetry. I’d been longing to read Beware of Pity ever since I read and loved Zweig’s autobiography The World of Yesterday a year or so ago. Beware of Pity is intensely psychological, a bit like Crime and Punishment, and is written so breathlessly that there aren’t even any proper chapter-breaks. It really is almost impossible to put down. Oddly enough, I read it soon after reading Crash by J.G. Ballard and tried to draw some comparisons between these two books about crippled people, but ended up just feeling bemused that the books could both revolve around the same thing but be so irreconcilably different. It was a joy to return to Adlestrop with Edward Thomas’s Selected Poems. Nature poet extraordinaire. I should also like to add in here by first encounter with Gavin Maxwell in The Ring of Bright Water, which was the perfect thing to read in the Outer Hebrides – a funny, eccentric book about living with an otter in Scotland. Although the best bit isn’t actually in Scotland, it’s when he’s trying to take his otter home on an aeroplane and the otter causes utter farcical delightful chaos.

But enough of all this old stuff, I have read some new things too. And actually some of them were quite cutting edge and very very good. They made me feel tinglingly excited about writing today. Ali Smith’s There but for the is a delightful riff of a book, jumping from pun to pun to pun, all within bigger meta-puns. It’s very clever but also very enjoyable. A playful love of language radiates from the book, which makes it hard to resist. Landfall by Helen Gordon was very good too, seeming to be quite a normal sort of book and then suddenly swerving into something quite extraordinary.

But – best of all – is A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, which I’ve just finished reading. This book has been so ridiculously over-hyped that I almost felt I knew so much about it just from everyone going on and on about it that I couldn’t quite be bothered to read it myself. But oh my god what an absolutely genius, brilliant book. It is written with such verve, so sharp, so funny – yet also quietly sad. It’s a book which screams NEW YORK at you. It is New York. Essentially, Egan looks at a group of characters who work in the music industry. Each chapter takes one of the characters at a certain time (jumping back several decades hopping forward into the future and stopping off at moments in between) and captures various moments in their lives. I loved it and could go on about it for hours, but shall limit myself here to one particular aspect that I found to be fascinating and brilliantly-realised: the future. There are two chapters set in the future. The first one is written in power-point slides, as though, by then, this is how people communicate. Lawns are a dream of the past, as you have to have loads of carbon credits to get them now, and there is a strange alien solar plant which also harvests moonlight. The other chapter sees the very clever invention of ‘pointers’ – toddlers who ‘point’ at what they want on people’s ubiquitous ‘handsets’ and thereby determine powerful trends. So, for instance, several bands have brought out songs to appeal to ‘pointers’, because the children literally ‘point’ at the handset to download it and the sales shoot through the roof. Having endured several nauseating conversations by yummy mummys in the bookshop about how ‘Little Rupert and Milly’ are so intuitive with their iPhones, this felt like an alarmingly plausible vision for the near-future. It is WEIRD how tiny children take to iPhones and iPads so easily and intuitively. How weird to think that this could be such a strong connection that it could essentially make them the ultimate consumer.

I shall end, appropriately, with Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending. I expect, as it won the Booker, you’ve probably read lots about it already. It is very clever, very addictive and it’s likely that, as soon as you finish it (which will be soon after you start, as it is slim and so unputdownable), you will want to start again to try and figure it out. The cold, sparse way in which it’s written didn’t bother me as much as it might have done. Perhaps it was because it’s a cold, detached sort of story so that style is perfect. It’s a very good book. And a beautiful object too.

All in all, a brilliant year of reading. I wonder what next year holds in store.

The Small Hand

December 13, 2011

Last week I read The Small Hand by Susan Hill. It was a choice based on the feeling that a ghost story was the right sort of thing to read in winter. It would be weird to feel too spine-tinglingly chilly in the heat of summer, whereas now it would be forgiven for prompting another cup of tea or making one draw a little closer to the fire. Or radiator.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever read a proper ghost story, other than The Turn of the Screw and a few various gothic moments that have incidentally come my way via bits and pieces of literature. So I read The Small Hand with a certain naïve scepticism. In other words I wasn’t expecting to find it particularly scary.

And I’m not sure that it was scary in a gory, terrifying, panic-inducing way. But it only took ten pages or so to get me completely gripped, longing to know what would happen next, where the eerie ghostly grip of the hand would take me. And perhaps that kind of tension and thrill counts as being scary in its own way.

The story is narrated by Adam Snow, an antiquarian bookseller, who gets lost on a winding country road and ends up by a derelict house. He is strangely drawn to the house and then,

as I stood I felt a small hand creep into my right one, as if a child had come up beside me in the dimness and taken hold of it.

Of course, there is no child. Surprisingly, Adam Snow doesn’t feel spooked in a horrid way by this sensation, in fact he rather likes it, and wishes he could feel it again. The reader gets the impression that it’s a friendly kind of ghost, one who might help him.

But things take a turn for the worse when the tugging at his hand recurs, swiftly becoming violent and trying to pull him to his death. Adam suffers alarming panic attacks and feels impelled to throw himself into any nearby body of water. Even a quiet pool in a very holy French monastery. Adam discovers that there was a boy who drowned in the pond at the derelict house, and suspects that this small hand belongs to his ghost. Then there are a couple of brilliant twists in the plot and it ends with a sudden raw feeling of slack-jawed surprise  – and of admiration for Susan Hill’s storytelling skill.

It’s tricky to discuss it without giving things away. While I have tried not to really spell it out, perhaps it’s only fair to warn you that if you want to avoid any risk of potential spoilers, you better look away now.

I thought there were two very interesting things about this book, which made it far greater than just any old ghost story.

Firstly, I recently saw Susan Hill give a talk, in which she was predominantly talking about her Simon Serrailler crime series. She said she found it fascinating when the nation was gripped with a particular news story. It doesn’t happen all that often, but every now and then something truly terrible happens, like the Soham murders, for instance, and something about it really grips everyone. She said that as a writer, she was often looking for new ways to engage with that.

And so, reading this book where it becomes clear that a two-year-old child has been drowned by an older child, one can’t help but think of the James Bulger case. This is a similarity pointed out by James Dyson in his review in the Guardian too. It doesn’t dominate the whole book, but somehow Hill’s ghost story casts a new slant of light on this appalling case. She gives us another instance of cruelty from one child to another, and looks at how that impacts upon the surviving child’s life, its repercussions, first muted and then fatally pronounced.

And, linked to this, is something Susan Hill hints at at the very beginning of the book, when Adam Snow first comes across the house:

But I wanted to know more. I wanted to see more. I wanted for some reason I did not understand to come here in the full light of day, to see everything, uncover what was concealed, reveal what had been hidden. Find out why.

It is immediately after this confession of an inexplicable desire to discover something that Adam Snow first feels the small hand. What if one decides that the ghostly small hand isn’t actually real, if the ghost isn’t really there, but is a manifestation of something psychologically repressed by the narrator?

Later in the book, Adam Snow returns to the house, determined to discover what is prompting this ‘ghost’, driven to get to the bottom of the mysterious violent urge that plagues him. There then follows an extraordinary few pages, where a strange old lady draws him into the derelict house, where she shows him pictures, and then leads him to a part of the house’s garden which isn’t overgrown and neglected like the rest of it, but is well-kept, freshly-mown, thriving. After this strange dream-like experience, he describes how he came to, ‘dazed’ and wonders if he had fainted. The reader can’t help but be puzzled by this episode. What’s happened? Where was he? Who is the mad old woman? How can he have found a hidden garden? Did he travel back in time?

Perhaps it is a strangely-realised journey into the subconscious, a delving into parts of his memory that had lain still, forgotten, a sudden flash of a photograph, integral to unlocking the mystery.

But I don’t think this psychological interpretation of a ghost story makes its ghosts any less real. The ghosts are there for Adam Snow; they are his ghosts. If anything it’s an argument that ghosts do exist. For we all have things that we have tried to forget, many have had traumatic moments of childhood that they have pushed deep down inside themselves. So it stands to reason that at some point we might feel an eerie familiarity with a place, or smell, a strange urge to go somewhere, an uncanny feeling of deja vu, something that could almost be described as supernatural. We all have our ghosts. Perhaps the lesson here is to face them, for there is no point in running away – they will always catch up with us and then the truth will out.