Unable to share her sorrow and grief with Ben’s family, who are dealing with their pain in their own way, Ruth becomes increasingly isolated, burying herself in her cottage in the countryside as the seasons change around her. Only Ben’s young brother Jo, is able to reach out beyond his own grief, to offer Ruth the compassion which might reclaim her from her own devastating unhappiness.
The result is a moving, lyrical exploration of love and loss, of grief and mourning, from a masterful writer.
Susan Hill excels in writing very effective stories in a small amount of space, 170 pages, in this case to be precise. This offering, on the subject of grief and renewal is, for me up to her usual high standard, if a little slow.
The use of gentle pacing though, is a reflection of the peaceful, idyllic setting in which Ruth exists and existing is the right word, for the feeling of bitter loss and melancholy which runs deep through Hill’s words. The cutting sense of grief is handled sensitively, the internal thoughts and slow comprehension of this new and difficult life that Ruth is on the cusp of, is a journey that hits all the emotional hot spots of the reader who cannot fail to be moved by the protagonist’s plight.
The reverberation of Ben’s death is not just focused on the immediate family who are a mixed bunch in likeability, but around the close-knit village community as well…all of which are familiar characters who fit into that old English village stereotype, albeit more fleshed out and believable. I was struck by the way the villagers expected a certain way of mourning almost like it is expected to behave in a certain ‘traditional’ way. This lack of understanding on the outsiders part fuels the uncomfortable meetings and self-awareness learned by most of the characters.
Despite its size, there were a few places where I found Ruth’s all-consuming grief a little gruelling, the relentlessness of the her internal thoughts was exhausting but also overtly realistic and insightful. I found the book worked better for me with self-imposed pauses in which I reflected on the words. Like the overall feel of the story, I found myself in no rush to go anywhere, just to be…aware of the moment.
The themes of nature, the cycle of seasons throughout the year and the gradual accepting and acclimatising of Ruth to her new life is a subtle journey. Gradual rebirth and comprehension of the inevitability, the inexorable essence of it all are harsh lessons but as John Hammond from Jurassic Park said ‘life finds a way’ (through dodgy science). The story may sound sentimental and it is but not overly so, it is the simple thought-provoking messages that Hill constantly underlines which give this book an unexpected spiritual vigour.
This book in short is a underlining, indeed a celebration of the significance and vitality of our lives and although there are such heartfelt and cruel losses, there is a time when an understanding can be had. A reconciliation if you will, a coming to terms with what life is and it is these perplexing mysteries and life lessons that are what will ultimately define us.