Susan B. Hill Essay - Critical Essays

Hill, Susan B.

Hill, Susan B. 1942–

Ms Hill, an English novelist, is considered a brilliant stylist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36).

Coming hard on the heels of Susan Hill's very considerable achievements in her most recent work, one expects great things from [Strange Meeting]. In many respects one gets them: the hard-edged prose, the painstaking detail, some aspects of the portrayal of Hilliard, and many of the minor characters. But the book has inbuilt defects that make it, in the final analysis, a failure. David Barton, everyone's golden boy, is neither credible nor sympathetic, despite heroic efforts to make him so; his family, who write him heartwarming letters and are frank and open and loving with one another, might have stepped from the pages of the late Godfrey Winn. The portrayal of the war is vivid but televisual….

The radical weakness is, perhaps, a failure to realize any of the attitudes that people must have had in the situation at the Western Front.

Diane Leclercq, in Books and Bookmen, January, 1972, pp. 61-2.

A novel about the love between two men, "The Bird of Night" is by one of Britain's most gifted novelists…. This novel is sombre and wholly persuasive, and it gives insights into the dazzle of insanity that even a very good biography … fails to do….

There are very few novels concerned with madness that are as compassionate or informed as this one…. It is also a calculatedly anti-academic novel, which is a very different thing from an anti-intellectual one. It is an affirmation of the intellect, of creativity and the generous mind; it is written with enormous skill and an absorbing and often heart-breaking intensity.

Paul Theroux, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 27, 1973, p. 16.

Christianity does not feature much in fiction these days; but the truth is that there are still many people who find that certain experiences can be grasped only with the help of religious symbolism; and for these people, some kind of existential Christianity means a great deal, especially in times of crisis. The heroine of Susan Hill's new novel In the Springtime of the Year does not question the specifically Christian aspect of her experience; it is hardly rationalized, but deeply felt. Like everything else in this short, accurate book, it seems true: people are like that.

Isabel Colegate, "A Year's Grief," in New Statesman, January 25, 1974, p. 121.

The Bird of Night is … a triumph of the novelist's art….

The Bird of Night lacks all those elements that automatically stamp a new novel as "profound" or "important," and worth noticing. What it has instead are qualities rarely found in contemporary fiction and apparently not much valued, which is a pity. It is a thoroughly created piece of work, a novel wrought of language carefully designed to tell a story drawn, not from the surface of the author's life or fragments of her autobiography, but from the heart of the imagination….

What is remarkable about the book is the convincing portrayal of Francis both as poet and madman. Susan Hill gives us none of the poetry, only journal entries, indications of books read, scraps of worksheets and Harvey's analyses, but it works—with a little exercise of the reader's imagination. Francis Croft exists as a poet….

She is even more successful in her depiction of madness. Nothing here of any grand romantic notions of artistic frenzy, only a recurrence of terror and pitiful loss of control as Francis is overwhelmed again and again by furies he cannot understand….

Susan Hill does not vulgarize her conception of the poet by larding her book with psychiatric theories of the relationship between creativity and what the ancients called the divine frenzy. Both exist as mysteries, visitations to be endured, two-sided gifts of the imagination not amenable to reductive explanation….

This careful shaping of material to make its effect with the utmost economy, adhered to and practiced by such modern masters as Gide, Woolf, Colette and Pavese, seems to have fallen into abeyance, and it is good to see it once again employed with such great skill.

Michele Murray, "Restorations-1," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), February 16, 1974, pp. 23-4.

"In the Springtime of the Year" is a book like a handmade quilt. It is traditional, well-stitched, moves slowly towards completion, and is intended, at least partially, as a comfort against the cold. It speaks of home truths, of rituals, of long-established ways of life and of a sense of sharing. Like a quilt, too, it is somewhat abstract, somewhat geometrical, concerned less with departures from the norm than with "the pattern of things," a phrase which recurs with variations throughout the book. Unlike quilts, however, it is of a genus currently unfashionable; one way of saying this is that it is written in a romantic mode, in which absolute goodness is both possible and meaningful, rather than in the prevelant 20th-century ironic mode, in which it is not….

[Despite] lapses into simplemindedness, "In the Springtime of the Year" justifies itself by the intensity of those things it does well: moments of genuine feeling, moments of vision. It is less a novel than the portrait of an emotion, and as this it is poignant and convincing.

Margaret Atwood, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 5, 1974, p. 7.

Like a hawk circling closer and closer to its prey, English writer Susan Hill has come closer and closer to the subject that dominates her newest novel [In the Springtime of the Year]—grief and death. Strange Meeting, her novel about World War I, ends with the death of one young soldier and the mourning of his friend; The Bird of Night is not only about madness and genius but is also about Harvey Lawson's love for Francis Croft and his long years of mourning after Francis' suicide. Her collection of stories, A Bit of Singing and Dancing, published only in England, makes her concern more explicit, for each of the 11 stories treats openly of love, loss and grief between oddly assorted couples. She is drawn to old people and to outcasts—retarded children, deaf-mutes, faded middle-aged bachelors and spinsters still waiting for life to happen to them—and handles sympathetically settings rarely used in contemporary English fiction: deep country and seaside villages when the vacationers have left.

In her new novel, In the Springtime of the Year, she has chosen to limit herself to the most naked manifestations of love, death and mourning, drawing on what is apparently a personal experience….

Susan Hill has already demonstrated her mastery of character-drawing and fictional technique in her earlier novels, but In the Springtime of the Year, with its deliberate stripping away of almost all the elements of conventional fiction, represents a remarkable advance in what is turning out to be a considerable oeuvre for such a young writer….

By looking closely at both setting and character and by putting down what she sees in exact and restrained prose, she has succeeded in transforming the shapeless emotion of grief into a shapely and successful work of art whose affirmation of a world "where all manner of thing shall be well," signals yet another triumph by an artist who, in her quiet, steady way, is fast becoming one of the outstanding novelists of our time.

Michele Murray, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), May 18, 1974, p. 24.

Susan Hill … has produced a few small masterpieces, but all her work is distinguished by a notable absence of incessant autobiography or intermittent romans-a-clef, and the presence of a powerful imagination. Her subjects are more often men than women, usually society's outsiders by virtue of their strangeness, loneliness, secret longings, or bereavements. Always they seem, as in her collections of stories, The Albatross (1971) and A Little Bit of Singing and Dancing (1973), to be epics diminute, great subjects and objects looked at through the wrong end of the opera glass. They are stories about hope and despair, loneliness and disillusion, rejection and acceptance, told in a series of spare, tight, closet scenes, and leading into a world of feeling, meaning, implication.

Her approach is to use great concepts and reduce them to such barren, sparse detail that they slip past the reader's attention at first, seeming to be trivial, almost unworthy. But they return to claw at the mind, demanding with stunning force to be remembered, especially in her short novels, The Bird of Night (1973) and Strange Meeting (1971), two works which established her reputation in England but were hardly noticed here.

Hill's stock-in-trade is the human colloquium. She posits two persons in curious often lopsided tension with one another…. Almost always it is a simple (or seemingly simple) duality. Yet the result is a revelation of human worth, disclosed at painful moments of encounter or abandonment. She promotes simple connections made more poignant and meaningful by their oddness, or what the world thinks of as odd.

In In the Springtime of the Year, she has even refined her method. A 21-year-old solitary girl has just lost the only thing in her life of any value to her, her husband…. Hill chronicles the first year of her loss with lean detail….

On rereading, the slow, almost liturgical progress of this account of a year's sorrow becomes more impressive. But still, its very brevity, its studied reduction to the lowest possible denominator of description and plot, makes me think that Susan Hill has tried to extend beyond the normal length what might have been a powerful short story. It is not true that nothing happens in it, as one reader said. A great deal happens, but it happens in too compressed and linear a fashion; it lacks the texture and richness of the experience of a full novel. The work shows very little advance, to my mind, of her talent, merely an extension of it into a rather narrow corner….

I suspect Susan Hill has … the capacity to become, with the expansion of her form and her scope, an important writer.

Doris Grumbach, "Can Spring Be Far Behind?" in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 19, 1974, p. 7.

There are so many extraordinary things about Susan Hill's writing and about her success, that I hardly know where to start. Is it not almost past belief that a serious writer should achieve such success in our age, when there is nowhere in her work a whiff of petrol fumes and diesel oil or of any of today's smelly superficial problems (wages and prices, industrial disputes, economic growth, political strife, racialism, technological advance, environmental planning, moral permissiveness, sex, sex, sex, abortion, women's liberation, violence, hi-jacking, juvenile delinquency, mugging, vandalism) but instead a concern with such fundamentals as life and death, the need for love, the absence of it, fear, longing and the death of hope? And also: a most sensitive and receptive awareness of life and of things outside man himself: of animals, birds, of woods and fields, of the sea and the shore, of shells, razors, conches, mere pebbles in the sand. And is it not extraordinary that she should be able to turn her back on the contemporary scene and to treat of these things, mainly in settings atypical of our age (sleepy seaside resorts in the winter, fishing villages, the remote countryside) yet avoid sentimentality and escapism, indeed convince the reader that these are the important things, these are the things that really matter? (I have stopped watching television since I started to read more and more of Susan Hill.)

There is also the extraordinary effectiveness of her prose style…. [The] most striking feature of this prose is its ability to achieve the most telling effects, to rouse the most powerful emotions, especially of pain and pity, by the use of plain words. At times, especially when reading the splendid short stories in A Bit of Singing and Dancing, I have gone back to a particularly moving passage the following day, to investigate the prose which had created this effect—at times it had been like listening to music. But a careful examination (with a magnifying glass, as it were) did not reveal any special individual feature, any specifically literary use of words, to explain the effect achieved. No, this is prose which resembles a length of first-quality material: no purple patches; no patches of any kind: good all through….

[Yet] another extraordinary feature of Miss Hill's writing, extraordinary that is in the age in which we are unfortunately obliged to live: this prose is so civilized, controlled and well-mannered. It is not prissy, except where the characters it has to portray are that, as in the early novels particularly. No, not prissy, but polite, under control, considerate to the reader—and no less powerful for being so either….

Her insight is unusually penetrating, her compassion unusually sympathetic, her grasp of her subject-matter and her deftness in handling it a delight….

[Susan Hill] is so good she amounts to a phenomenon in our age and is far better, anyway, than anything we deserve. To read Susan Hill is to enrich the spirit. In how many places can one do that today?

James Brockway, "Old as the Hills," in Books and Bookmen, June, 1974, pp. 30-3.