Black Sheep – Susan Hill

Brother and sister, Ted and Rose Howker, grew up in Mount of Zeal, a mining village blackened by coal. They know nothing of the outside world, though both of them yearn for escape. For Rose this comes in the form of love, while Ted seizes the chance of a job away from the pit. But neither can truly break free and their decisions bring with them brutal consequences…

dispensing with the normal ghost story – always atmospherically written by Hill –  which has become a bit of a tradition for me around the holiday season, this year I chose this short story instead to mix it up a bit.  Whilst not being conducive to Christmas cheer in any way whatsoever, it was a very rewarding read.

As the front cover says this is a bleak piece of writing and I can imagine that a lot of people may well be put off by that, however I really appreciated it for its unflinching portrayal of a tough and cheerless life.  The story is told in few words and as such the shortness of the book helps the reader through, as being under 150 pages long/short means the story is manageable over a brief period and doesn’t drag the reader into too much despair.

The miners and their families are easily recognisable, they could have come from other iconic works.  The citizens of the community resemble less extreme versions of those found in Zola’s Germinal or Dickens’ Hard Times for example. It does feel almost clichéd in that respect Hill writes on the side of accuracy as memorably depicted by plenty of authors and social commentors such as George Orwell’s insightful and agonising The Road to Wigan Pier.

As well written as it is, sometimes this is a tough read but I found it a book I could read quickly and more importantly wanted to read in a couple of sessions.  The strengths of the book lie in the simple yet descriptive writing, which contains many interesting and well-rounded characters and their struggles with their severe reality, of life and loss.

Of the two main stories, I found Rose’s to be the more interesting due to the traditions of the time and the path mapped out for her but both were coated in tragedy and sacrifice as the struggle to lift themselves out of the poverty they are trapped in unfolds and escape becomes more urgent.  The twin motifs of clean and dirty run through the book as you would expect, and those definitions with their visual boundaries really do help create some powerful and subtle imagery.

Black Sheep is full of characters that I found myself caring and despairing about.  Thought provoking and gritty with enough pace to keep things moving along steadily, I found this ultimately to be a poignant read. The pits around our way are all closed now (since 2015) but this is the telling of a wider story of families and their lives, both past and undoubtedly still in the present – somewhere in the world – and is well worth your time to read.

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19 Replies to “Black Sheep – Susan Hill”

    1. As it’s a novella, it’s a lot more palatable than something of a more traditional book length. Had it been such, I would still be plodding through it a few pages at a time, I suspect.

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  1. Yes, and one thing to keep in mind is that there is another bleak story to be told sometime; that is, just what has happened to all those families SINCE the pits have closed. That’s another story altogether.

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    1. Yes that is a good point, I would like to pick up a book about that subject someday as well.There are so many subjects to read up on, it’s both intoxicating and sad as I won’t be able to read them all.

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  2. I am currently reading Hill’s marvellously entertaining ‘Howards End Is On The Landing’ – a book about books, and therefore a must-read! It, and now you, have reminded me that I must get back to her fiction some time soon. I love it when life converges with messages like this!

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    1. Ah, yes I read that book a while back and found it enjoyable, it was a nice change to her fiction, especially the horror stuff that she puts out around Christmas time. I really rate In the Spring Time of the Year which was a powerful book and coincidentally another book I reviewed a while back.

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  3. I’ve read some tough books, so I don’t usually shy away from stories like this one. I’m currently reading Sing, Unburied, Sing, a book about a family in the American south that are torn apart by poverty, drugs, and incarceration. It’s beautifully written, but hard to stomach, as it presents some of the darkest forms of racism in the U.S. I may be ready for much lighter fare after I’m done with it.

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    1. I will have to check that one out at some point, I always find stuff like that very interesting. It always takes a lot out of the reader, tackling something challenging so I don’t blame you for looking for something a lot lighter.

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    1. It is a talent to convey something affecting in few words. It also feels good to read something short as it gives the appearance of flying through the books even at this early stage of the year.

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    1. She does seem to write really good stories in a short amount of pages. It makes it more palatable but I do have a liking for her horror stories slightly more.

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