Books: Search for a silver lining

Carol Birch admires the silken prose that can weave art out of grief
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The Service of Clouds by Susan Hill

Chatto & Windus, pounds 15.99, 271pp

SUSAN HILL takes the title of her new novel from a passage in Ruskin describing the supremacy of cloud in modern landscape painting. Like tiny figures in a shaded foreground, her characters are dwarfed by the nebulous enormity of forces above and beyond their control: inherited grief, cosmic uncertainty, death.

In the bleak setting of a half-derelict hospital for the very old, Molloy, an ageing doctor, keeps watch with the dying. "He likes death," says the sister to a young nurse, explaining Molloy's insistence upon being with his patients to the bitter end and even accompanying the bodies down into the mortuary.

What she does not know is that what he is doing in holding the hands and wiping the faces of the dying, is making amends for the fact that his own mother died alone. Still deeply grieving, Molloy recalls a mother- son relationship that was so close that "it was as though the same blood flowed in and through and round them both, as if he fed from her breast and they had never been separated".

Hill then draws us in another layer, and we follow the life story of Molloy's mother, Flora. Grave, fiercely independent yet vulnerable, her character is formed by a series of bereavements and bitter disappointments. As a child she discovers her father dead and is displaced in her mother's strained affections by her new sister, Olga. Later, the boy she is governess to, an endearing child called Hugh, is killed in a car accident. Again and again, lovingly imagined futures are snatched away in a moment. Susan Hill writes piercingly about grief and its aftermath, "a pure core of sadness that she learned to accept".

Flora never belongs anywhere and feels that she has no identity; that "in some terrifying sense, she was nobody". Twice she withdraws from devoted female friendships. Her one experience of romantic love ends in a vanishing as sudden and mysterious as death. After a brief, kind but altogether passionless marriage ends in the death of her mentally unstable husband, she ends up as an impoverished milliner, delighting in the richness of coloured silks and passing on her pathological loneliness to the son, whose identity seems in some way mixed with that of the dead boy he is named after.

The Service of Clouds is skillfully structured, seamlessly blending past and present. The novel has a rough circularity which brings us back to the present, and Molloy walking the abandoned corridors of the hospital - a dying thing in itself, as it slowly empties prior to demolition.

Resolution is sought through Molloy's death watch with his own crippled wife, Elizabeth, a woman as withdrawn as himself. This complex marriage is introduced late in the book. Sexless and childless but not loveless, this relationship bears the weight of all that has gone before.

Hill's lean, sharp prose and consistently detached tone create a severe and rather beautiful book, with a certain plain poetry that flows silkily off the page. What little conversation there is, is stylised, repetitive and curiously formal. The vibrant possibilities of life are represented for Flora by a painting of a woman at an open window; for Molloy, they are represented by a line of distant hills.

Never realised, these possibilities are subsumed under impressions of loneliness - the sound of draining basins in Flora's gloomy boarding house, unopened letters, a single table apart from the general company. A few moments of transcendent joy and peace stand against these, bright, crisp highlights that line the clouds like silver.