Susan Hill: The Shadows in the Street (2010) Simon Serrailler 5

I read and reviewed several of Susan Hills books; her WWI novel Strange Meeting, the ghost stories The Woman in Black and The Small Hand, the memoir Howard’s End is on the Landing and recently – not reviewed – Jacob’s Room is Full of Books. I enjoyed them all. What I hadn’t tried yet, was her Simon Serrailler crime series. I can’t remember why I didn’t buy the first in the series but the fifth, I only know I bought it when it was published in 2010 – one of many pointless hardback purchases. Luckily, although it took me seven years to get to it, the novel was a very pleasant surprise.

The Shadows in the Street is set in Lafferton, a fiction cathedral town in Southern England. It opens from the point of view of one of the POV characters, Leslie Blade, a single librarian who lives with his elderly mother. In the evenings, Leslie often visists the young prostitutes of Lafferton and brings them tea and sandwiches. From his point of view the book switches to Abi, one of the young prostitutes the book focuses on. When one of Abi’s colleagues is brutally murdered, Leslie’s quickly one of the main suspects. We’re then introduced to Cat, Simon’s sister, who lost her husband. She’s the council doctor and active in the church and the church choir. The next characters we are introduced to are two young police officers, one who is new on the force and only came to Lafferton because of Simon Serrailler. Simon too makes an appearance but not “on the scene”, but in Scotland, where’s he’s on a holiday. After the first young woman is murdered, another one follows and a third, not a prostitute this time, disappears. And finally, Serrailler, returns to Lafferton.

In many ways The Shadows in the Streets is a peculiar crime novel. It’s part of the series featuring DC Simon Serrailler. Naturally, one would expect a police procedural but that’s not really what this is. It’s a mix between that and a psychological thriller. And one would expect that the main protagonist would be present from the beginning, but he’s absent for almost half of the book. There’s good reason for that – he’s on a holiday, recovering from his last case. While that may be different in other novels, I’m pretty sure many of the other elements are not. As crime novels go, this was one of the more diverse ones I’ve read. It’s written from many different POVs, including that of the perpetrator, but never giving away his identity. I like that. It’s become a staple of recent psychological thrillers to switch POV mid-way through the book and thus reveal the identity of the killer, which I hate. So many of my recent reads have been ruined because of that – last case in point Lisa Jewell’s Then She Was Gone. The Shadow in the Street takes time to introduce us to most of the characters, which gives the book a larger scope and transcends the genre. One can read this like a crime novel or a social commentary. It works well both ways. Clearly, Susan Hill felt strongly about the topic of prostitution and what society could or should do to help the women get out of this occupation. Introducing us to different characters, she paints different portraits, shows the despair, the struggle. Sometimes on both sides. There are well-meaning people who want to help – social workers, doctors, clergy – but they mostly fail.

While Simon Serrailler isn’t present in the beginning of the book, we still get to know him  very well. He’s definitely the kind of investigator I like. A bit of a loner, unpredictable, doing things his way, not following strict orders or procedures. In his spare time he paints. He’s so talented that he could become a full-time painter but he loves to do two very different things. I can definitely relate to that.

As far as crime novels go, this isn’t the tightest but I didn’t mind because I enjoyed reading it. There’s suspense and the ending is not obvious, but at the same time it has a leisurely pace and takes a lot of time to show the characters and explore its main theme – prostitution. Susan Hill is famous for her ghost stories. Ghost stories need strong atmosphere and since she excels in the genre, it’s not surprising that this book is atmospheric too.

This isn’t going to be my last Simon Serrailler. I’m very tempted to go back to the beginning and read the first very soon. Susan Hill’s a skilful story-teller and this series is a great addition to the genre.

Literature and War Readalong January Wrap Up: Strange Meeting

I just wanted to thank all of those who have participated either through reading, commenting or reviewing Susan Hill’s Strange Meeting. I think it was quite a success and everybody liked the novel. Various comments either on my or on other sites showed that there is a great interest in this novel and in the topic of WWI in general. I’m glad I chose a succession of WWI novels to start with as it will be interesting and thought-provoking to compare them.

Susan Hill’s novel is unique in so far as the biggest part of the novel takes place in a rest camp, off the front line. We approach the trenches very slowly. Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen nichts Neues aka All Quiet on the Western Front is much harder to read because of the importance of combat. We have a sequence in which Paul Bäumer is on leave and he does feel as lost as Hilliard on his stay in England. The isolation of the soldier who returns from combat to his home is a common theme. It’s very hard to imagine what it must have been like. They couldn’t speak and no one wanted to listen anyway.

Birdsong came to my mind as well, while reading. It’s an outstanding novel in many ways as good as or better than Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy. There is much more emphasis on combat in Birdsong. Regeneration and its sequels are mostly exploring shell shock.

When reading the next novel in the readalong we have to bear in mind that the two main characters in Strange Meeting were both officers. This is important as this will not always be the case in all the novels we read and the life of an officer and a simple private was certainly much different. The main character in All Quiet on the Western Front is just a simple private.

One topic that we discussed and which I found interesting was the question whether Barton’s very explicit letters wouldn’t have been censored. I was wondering as well and luckily Susan answered this question by pointing out that Barton actually writes in one letter, that – because they are officers – their mail isn’t always censored.

Danielle pointed out in her post how very young Susan Hill was when she wrote this book. I think this explains the very fresh tone of Barton in some places. I had totally forgotten that all the Susan Hill books that I have read so far were the work of a much older woman.

Anna’s quote in her review reminded me that a big part of the book is dedicated to the devastation of the earth, the landscape, the animals. This is an important part and has also been emphasized in the comments. The French landscape still bear traces and I am not only talking of the memorials and cemeteries. The trenches were long, deep, the constant shelling ripped the earth apart. The horror of this war has not only wiped out a generation of young men but transformed and marked the earth forever.

Susan Hill: Strange Meeting (1971) Literature and War Readalong January


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?

Other reviews:

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)


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 .

Susan Hill: Howards End is on the Landing (2009) A Bookish Memoir

Early one autumn afternoon in pursuit of an elusive book on her shelves, Susan Hill encountered dozens of others that she had never read, or forgotten she owned, or wanted to read for a second time. The discovery inspired her to embark on a year-long voyage through her books, forsaking new purchases in order to get to know her own collection again. A book which is left on a shelf for a decade is a dead thing, but it is also a chrysalis, packed with the potential to burst into new life. Wandering through her house that day, Hill’s eyes were opened to how much of that life was stored in her home, neglected for years. Howard’s End is on the Landing charts the journey of one of the nation’s most accomplished authors as she revisits the conversations, libraries and bookshelves of the past that have informed a lifetime of reading and writing.

I can’t tell you exactly how long it took to read this book. An evening? Two? Certainly not longer. I devoured it. What is more fascinating to read than a bookish memoir? And written by a writer. On top of that Howards End is on the Landing also contains some information on Strange Meeting, the first book I chose for my Literature and War Readalong.

Shouldn’t we all stop buying books from time to time and first read what is at hand, on our own shelves? This is exactly what Susan Hill did for a whole year. During this year she discovered and rediscovered a lot of books and writers, was reminded of many memories that are linked to books and writing and chose her own personal canon of 40 books.

It is an extremely interesting and entertaining and at times frankly puzzling book. Susan Hill doesn’t read Canadian or Australian literature. Why not? Too foreign. She thinks Joyce, Proust and a few others are unreadable. Are they? There were bits and pieces of information like this that did surprise me. But she is honest. She isn’t pretending for one second. It is obvious that this is the book of a reader, it is nothing like Francine Prose’s outstanding Reading Like a Writer, it is only about personal choices and tastes. There are whole chapters dedicated to her favourite female writers: Barbara Pym, Anita Brookner, Virginia Woolf, Penelope Fitzgerald and Iris Murdoch.  She has met quite many of the writers she mentions and tells anecdotes that are interesting too.

One whole chapter is dedicated to diaries, another one to picture books, one to things that fall out of books, another one is dedicated to annotations in books and  she muses over short stories (not her favourite form).

Sebald gets a whole chapter which surprised me after what she said about Proust and Joyce and others. I’m glad I am already reading his Austerlitz or I would have to rush and get one of his books. She really makes him sound appealing. I agree with her, there is no writer like Sebald.

His subject matter is extraordinary, unpredictable and odd – he seems to collect the unusual and be interested in the outlandish, but, through his eyes, even the ordinary and prosaic becomes somehow strange. Everything he sees, everywhere he goes, every person he meets, all are filtered through some curious lens of his own devising.

Something that I liked is her evaluating some of the classics and giving advice with which one of their novels one should start. One should read Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and not start with Tess of the d’Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure. Sounds sensible.

If she had two choose among the ghost stories she knows, she would choose M.R. James’ O Whistle and I’ll Come to You and Edith Wharton’s  Mr Jones. Given that it’s a genre in which she excels, I take her word for it.

When it comes to short stories in general she likes John McGahern, William Trevor and Katherine Mansfield.

Travel books are also covered and here it is Patrick Leigh Fermor who gets a special mention. He is also mentioned in her chapter on editing books, something she has also been doing for quite a while. Fermor is one of her authors.

One chapter I enjoyed particularly was the one on diaries. I would have liked to start all the books mentioned right away and have never heard of some the authors she loves to read and reread. Namely the Reverend Francis Kilvert and Frances Partridge. But she also loves Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary and, surprisingly (as she doesn’t like his novels at all), The Journal of Sir Walter Scott.

All in all I highly recommend this book. It’s very colloquial and reading it feels like talking to a good friend about the books and stories he or she likes. I found a lot of books I’m looking forward to reading now, especially those that are waiting on my shelves. In this sense it is an inspiring book that put me in the mood to concentrate more on the books I already have and not acquire so many news ones.

Out of the list of 40 novels she indicates, I chose to reproduce a list of the novels written by women that she thinks to be among the best. I chose only the women because a) they are not as numerous and b) I would like to read more female authors this year and c) you should still have a reason to read her memoir.

I read and reviewed Carson McCullers and read To the Lighthouse as I have read all the novels by Virginia Woolf (except Voyage Out). The Rector’s Daughter and The Blue Flower are those I am most curious about.

Which ones of these novels do you know and like?

The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

Middlemarch by George Eliott

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

To the Lightouse by Virginia Woolf

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The Rector’s Daughter by F.M Mayor

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

The Bell by Iris Murdoch

Family and Friends by Anita Brookner

The Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson

Literature and War Readalong January 28 2011: Strange Meeting by Susan Hill

The end of the month will arrive sooner than we think and I just wanted to remind you that I am going to post on the first book in the Literature and War Readalong, Susan Hill’s Strange Meeting on January 28. I hope some of you have read it and will participate in the discussion and maybe post as well. It’s a short novel of barely 200 pages. The novel tells the story of two very different men who meet during WWI. The first four novels of this read along are all dedicated to WWI. The only one that is slightly longer (300 pages), is the April choice, Carol Ann Lee’s The Winter of the World.

To get you in the mood for Strange Meeting, here’ s a quote taken from Susan Hill’s website

My great uncle Sidney was killed on his 18th birthday at the Battle of the Somme and his photograph in uniform was on the dresser in my grandmother’s house so as a young child I always asked about him. The Great War began to haunt me from then and my interest became an obsession after I heard Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem in Coventry Cathedral. I knew I would have to write a novel about it but first I read everything I could – memoirs, biographies, history, letters. I wrote the novel in 6 weeks, at home in Warwickshire, and in my rented house in Aldeburgh, where I tramped across the marshes in the rain and mud and saw the ghosts of dead soldiers rising up in front of me.

But having finished it, my interest in the First World War was exorcised and it has never returned.

Another quote that seems important in the context is the poem Strange Meeting by Wilfred Owen which Susan Hill certainly had in mind.

It seemed that out of 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 pains 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 that 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 had 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 will try from now on and post a quick note on all the books of the readalong during the first weeks of each month.

Susan Hill: The Woman in Black (1983)

Proud and solitary, Eel Marsh House surveys the windswept reaches of the salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway. Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor, is summoned to attend the funeral Mrs Alice Drablow, the house’s sole inhabitant, unaware of the tragic secrets which lie hidden behind the shuttered windows. It is not until he glimpses a wasted young woman, dressed all in black, at the funeral, that a creeping sense of unease begins to take hold, a feeling deepened by the reluctance of the locals to talk of the woman in black – and her terrible purpose.

The Woman in Black is the second ghost story by Susan Hill I have read in a very short time. But since we are nearing the end of the R.I.P. Challenge this was the time or never.

I feel tempted to compare them as there are a lot of similarities but The Woman in Black is the creepier of the two. The settings are similar as well, although in this novel most of the horrifying events take place inside of a grand old mansion and only a few in the foggy marshes. The nature of the ghost in The Woman in Black is much more evil. It does really mean to harm those who see it.

Susan Hills writing is again very traditional, old-fashioned. This novel could have been written in the 19th century. This includes the narrative style as well as the themes and motives. Even so or maybe because of this it is beautifully written. The descriptions are detailed and atmospherical.

The story begins some thirty years after the main events. It is Christmas Eve and Arthur, our protagonist, is enjoying the company of his extended family on his beautiful estate Monks’ Piece. The family is gathered in the drawing room telling ghost stories when Arthur comes back from a short refreshing walk outside. They urge him to contribute to the fun and tell a ghost story of his own. He is not willing to do this as he is reminded of horrible events he hasexperienced as a very young man. Instead of telling what happened he decides to write it down.

As a young solicitor he was sent to Crythin Gifford. Mrs. Drablow an elderly client of the firm he is working for has died and his boss wants him to attend the funeral and spend some time sorting out the papers the old woman has left behind. It gets creepy early on as no one in the little town wants to talk about the deceased or her property. At the funeral Arthur sees a woman in black who looks very wasted as well as a group of children that no one else sees.

Later, at Eel Marsh House, the stately home of Mrs. Drablow, he sees the woman in black again. The estate is located on Nine Lives Causeway and is completely cut off from the mainland at high tide, surrounded only by the sea and marshes. The setting alone would creep out many but Arthur also  hears terrible noises, the cries of a child,  noises as if someone had an accident in the marshes. It is also spooky inside of the house. He feels he is not alone. There is one room he doesn’t have access to but there are distinct noises coming from  inside and when the door stands ajar all of a sudden he almost freaks out.

After his first stay at the house he goes back despite his fears and it gets worse. The incidents culminate.

Like in The Small Hand the story is resolved in the end. We get to hear who is the ghost and why he haunts people. The spite- and vengeful being will not stop to haunt Arthur after his departure. It strikes again.

The Woman in Black is a dark tale, darker than The Small Hand. As a whole I think I liked The Small Hand better. But the beginning of The Woman in Black, the chapter titled “Christmas Eve” is one of the most pleasant initial chapters I have ever read and stands in striking contrast to the events that are narrated later.

Apparently the novel has been adapted for the stage and been made into a TV movie.

Has anyone read both? Which one did you prefer?


Nymeth’s review

Susan Hill: The Small Hand (2010) A Ghost Story

Returning home from a visit to a client late one summer’s evening, antiquarian bookseller Adam Snow takes a wrong turning and stumbles across the derelict old White House. Compelled by curiosity, he approaches the door, and, standing before the entrance feels the unmistakable sensation of a small hand creeping into his own, ‘as if a child had taken hold of it’. Intrigued by the encounter, he determines to learn more, and discovers that the owner’s grandson had drowned tragically many years before. At first unperturbed by the odd experience, Snow begins to be plagued by haunting dreams, panic attacks, and more frequent visits from the small hand which become increasingly threatening and sinister …

I really bought The Small Hand with the R.I.P challenge in mind when I found it at a local bookstore. And because I love the cover and had wanted to read something  by Susan Hill anyway. I enjoyed it quite a lot. It is beautifully written but surprisingly old-fashioned in tone. It is quite an eerie and mysterious ghost story. What I appreciated is the fact that the mystery is solved in the end.

The Small Hand has quite a lot to offer. Adam Snow being a bookseller every book lover will feel a certain affinity right away. What sounds more enchanting than a job that involves travelling the world and looking for rare books? One of his trips brings Adam to the South of England. On his way back he gets lost and discovers an abandoned house with an overgrown garden. This is not exactly an original idea, especially not in a British novel as the British novel has a great tradition of descriptions of grand old  houses and mysterious gardens (from Great Expectations to The Secret Garden, Tom’s Midnight Garden to The Forgotten Garden and many more). The lack of originality did not disturb me one tiny bit as I love descriptions of old houses and descriptions of gardens that return to a state of wilderness. Susan Hill is very talented in describing nature with great detail. It is in this very garden that Adam feels for the first time the presence of the ghost of a little child.

Ghosts are normally bound to certain places but this one is not. It will haunt Adam all through the story and wherever he goes. Telling more would be a spoiler so I will stop here.

On one of his hunts for rare old books, a First Edition of Shakespeare in this case, Adam travels to a forlorn French monastery. This is another extremely well rendered description. And such an appealing one. I would love to spend a few weeks there myself.

I think this book could be quite scary for some readers especially if they have a history of recent panic attacks as this is the way Adam experiences the presence of the ghost or rather ghosts.

The Small Hand is a wonderfully old-fashioned and very British (a high compliment coming from a fervent Anglophile) Ghost Story creating a pleasant frisson. It is best read at this time of the year, preferably at night in bed.

I have already ordered The Woman in Black, another of Susan Hill’s Ghost Stories. What Susan Hill novels did you read and like?

Here’s another review of The Small Hand by Susan Hated Literature