John Hilliard, a young subaltern returning to the Western Front after a brief period of sick leave back in England, finds his battalion tragically altered. His commanding officer finds escape in alcohol, there is a new adjutant and even Hilliard’s batman has been killed. But there is David Barton. As yet untouched and unsullied by war, radiating charm and common sense, forever writing long letters to his family. Theirs is a strange meeting and a strange relationship: the coming together of opposites in the summer lull before the inevitable storm.
Strange Meeting, is set in the English countryside and the trenches in France, at the beginning of WWI. The book is divided into three parts. The first is written from John Hilliard’s point of view, the second mostly from David Barton’s and the third could be called the combined one. At the heart of the story is the juxtaposition of two very different themes; the intense and emotionally intimate friendship between John Hilliard and David Barton on the one hand, and the horrors of WWI on the other. The following quotes taken from page 158 illustrate this perfectly well:
“But they (the Germans) must know we are up to something.”
“Oh yes, though that fact is never obvious to High Command, whose faith in the Element of Surprise in the attack is really very touching and quite unshakeable.”
And a few lines later:
“Has it always been like that? Has it always been so easy for you to love people? To get on with them, to bring them out, say the right things at the right time? Have you always made friends as you’ve done out here?”
Whoever is familiar with novels or movies on wars knows that one of these two will die. It is the aim of books and movies on war to show an individual, to pick one person out of an anonymous number and to tell his story. As horrible as it is for us to know that in some offensives – especially in the early WWI ones – far over 100 000 young men were killed in less than an afternoon and millions died senselessly during the course of this war, we still need to be told an individual’s story and not only a huge number, to be touched emotionally. From the beginning of the novel until its end, the shadow of death hangs over these two young people and this is what makes it so touching. We know, one of them is doomed. It’s like a Greek tragedy.
Hilliard and Barton meet in France, during the first summer of WWI, in a bombed out village, away from the trenches and the front line. Hillard has just returned from a short sick leave to England. He is shocked to find his company reduced to a fraction. His commanding officer is drinking and seems to have lost his faith completely.
We lost three quarters of the Battalion in a day and a half. Getting on for two dozen officers. Mayor Gadney, young Parkinson, Ward – all the best. Half of them went because we didn’t get an order telling us the second push was cancelled. They just went on. You were well out of it. I’m glad you were out of it.
But Hilliard’s stay in England was horrible too. He couldn’t sleep, had no one to talk too. He showed signs of shell-shock, only not enough to not return. The mindless cheerfulness of the people around him who had no idea what it was like to be in the trenches was unbearable. They did neither realize how useless the losses were, nor how futile the missions. The newspapers only gave a purified version and people everywhere were convinced, the war would be over by Christmas. Hilliard was suffering from this feeling of isolation and haunted by the images and smells that were stuck in his mind. He found the smell of roses revolting, the sweetness reminded him of the smell of dead bodies. He would have liked to talk to his sister, the only person from his family he felt close to, but finds her estranged. She is about to get married and he doesn’t approve of her choice until he realizes, there is really no one else left, most other young men are dying in France.
When he returns to France and finds out that most of the men of his company are dead, he also hears that there is a new guy that he will share his quarters with. They don’t meet directly at first, instead we follow Hilliard into the room that they will share and discover Barton through his things.
The lettering (on the valise) was upright and plain and clear, done in black ink. The leather of the valise still shone, the buckles were not yet tarnished. There was a tortoise-shell backed hairbrush and comb and a slab of chocolat Meunier. A copy of The Turn of the Screw and of the complete works by Thomas Browne, and one of the Psalms, bound in navy morocco. Hilliard reached out a hand towards it, hesitated, drew his hands back.
This passage tells us such a lot in a few words. The new guy is still untarnished, naive, it seems he has prepared himself for a summer camp. Hilliard resents this at first but when he finally meets Barton and gets to know him, he understands that Barton would always have packed the same things, no matter where he would have gone. His belongings mirror his being and how he always tries to see the sunny side of things and make the best of it. Hilliard has never met anyone like Barton. He is cheerful, easygoing, open, direct and very communicative. Even though he is reluctant at first, Hilliard is swiped away by Barton’s exuberance. For the first time in his life he starts to open up to another person and speaks about himself and his feelings.
Part II is mostly told from Barton’s point of view and consists in large parts of letters home to his family. Barton writers the longest letters Hilliard has ever seen. This strikes him as his family sends expensive parcels but short, polite and distant notes.
The two friends are not at the front yet, Barton will still have to find out what life in the trenches is like but he already sees someone killed and feels responsible for the man’s death.
There is something all the men hate about this place. Now, I can sense it myself. Something old and bad and dead, a smell a feeling you get as you walk across the street. It is not simply the bodies lying all about us, and the fact that the guns are firing, it is something else, something…
Part III is set in the trenches and we see a considerably changed and disillusioned Barton who has been sent on a reconnaissance mission on which he has seen people get killed. They know by now that High Command prepares for a big offensive. Since most of these are high in losses their morale is low. Being the new guy, Barton is sent on several reconnaissance missions without Hilliard who goes almost crazy when he imagines Barton might get hurt or killed. When the offensive finally begins the two friends are separated in the chaos and one of them dies.
Strange Meeting does an incredible job at rendering what it was like to be in France in the summer of 1914. It captures the difference between the relative luxury encountered by the companies who wait off the front line and the ugliness and ordeal of the trenches. Susan Hill describes all the details that we can also find in history books, memoirs and letters. She describes various elements that were typical for WWI, the futility and high losses of the offensives, the chaotic and bad planning, the underestimation of the situation and possible duration of the war. The trenches are rendered accurately. Once they are there we read about the constant shelling, the noise, the rats, the mud, the dirt, the stink, the wetness and the cold.
As accurately as she renders the dreary trenches and the sadness and futility of it all, it is not surprising to read the following in her afterword:
Yet I have not told the whole truth, for although I have accounted for my obsession with the First World War, I am still sometimes troubled by thoughts of those two young men of whom I became so very fond while I was writing about them and who stand for thousands upon thousands of others, so full of youth, strength and bright promise, who were slaughtered in a war perhaps more futile and meaningless than any other in history. I wrote the novel in memory of them and in tribute to them. But I hope it is not thought of only as a novel whose “subject is the war and the pity of war”, for, more than anything else it is about human love.
Srange Meeting is indeed a novel about friendship, much more than about the war. The war serves as a backdrop and an explanation for this very intimate exchange. In civilian life, men were not this close, opening up would have taken much longer. Strange Meeting excels in rendering the intensity of the feelings of two people for one another and the tragedy of their fate. As strange as this may seem, although the description of their feelings for each other can only be called love and Barton does also tell Hilliard that he loves him, I never had the feeling they were gay. Apparently Susan Hill has been asked if Hilliard and Barton did have a physical relationship and she denied this. As said this never occurred to me either. It is really about emotional love. It is sad that we immediately have to think that there must be some sexual attraction involved as soon as two people have very strong feelings for each other.
I read somewhere that it wasn’t possible to say if Strange Meeting had been written by a man or a woman. I would contradict this. I think we can feel that it was written by a woman. This is mostly due to Barton’s narrative voice and the nature of their conversations. They constantly ask each other how they feel, speak out everything, clarify, share their emotions.
I think Strange Meeting is a beautiful novel about a unique and fateful meeting that took place during one of the darkest moments of European history.
What did you think?
Strange Meeting was the first book in the Literature and War Readalong. The next one will be Jennifer Johnston’s How Many Miles to Babylon. Discussion starts on Friday February 25, 2011 .