Susan Hill is not the first novelist to succumb, with increasing age, to a tendency to the oracular. Her latest novel – perhaps the most moving she has written – unfolds its tale of goodness and retribution with the surefooted inevitability of a Delphic utterance. Hill's prose embraces sentences that are by turn short and staccato and deliberately long and rambling. Defiant in its simplicity, it has an incantatory quality that is not least among this slender novel's page-turner qualities.
A Kind Man is a story of a marriage. It is also a parable and, with its elements of apparent magic and transformation, a fairy-tale. It is set in an unspecified period, in an industrial town of print works, chair manufacturies and a dark canal. Men and women are hard-working, poor and old before their time. There is no welfare state and no National Health Service. Birth, death and hunger are the only certainties in this drab region that is a landscape of the mind as much as a physical reality.
Eve Gooch marries Tommy Carr on account of his kindness – and because her younger sister Miriam has already married and Eve fears to remain alone with their shrewish, unhappy mother. Tommy marries Eve because she is different from the other girls he has seen. Whatever their motives, Eve and Tommy discover that, once married, they are in love. Their universe contracts around themselves, the small house they rent outside the smoggy town and a long-awaited daughter, Jeannie Eliza, on whom both dote. They are happy and content. Eve "loved her husband, her home, her life".
Until, with a few deft strokes of Hill's pen, Jeannie Eliza dies at the age of four and Tommy, silent in his misery, attentive only to Eve, falls prey to a cluster of hideously distended malignant tumours which threaten to explode his emaciated body. For an instant he hovers on the brink of death. Then a miracle occurs. "Something fell into place but he did not know what or where."
Hill's treatment of her characters evokes something of Iris Murdoch's last novels. All are ultimately powerless – not simply on account of their economic precariousness but because each, like a puppet, is jerked this way and that by external forces which brook no resistance.
Human life is seen as fragile, impotent. Hill's justice is tough and unrelenting, the sort of harsh predeterminism once attributed to pagan deities. But such is the warmth and humanity of her writing that the reader continually dares to expect the impossible, with the result that, despite its shortness, this is a novel of huge emotional impact and moments of immense poignancy.
In their joy and suffering, Hill invests Tommy and Eve with intimations of universality. She resists mawkishness and grandiloquence. A Kind Man is not the happiest New Year read, but it is a fine, accomplished and richly satisfying novel.
Matthew Dennison's 'Empress of Rome: the life of Livia' is published by QuercusReuse content