A Kind Man, By Susan Hill

In sickness and health, till death does not part
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The Independent Culture

It is a slender thing, Susan Hill's novella, A Kind Man.

A book that will slip down in a single session; slight, simple and elegant. But it has a power beyond its pages; a haunting resonance between each stark sentence that stayed with me long after I'd turned the final page.

The kind man of the title is Tommy Carr, and it is his wife, Eve, who leads us through the story. Eve met Tommy at 20 (her sister had married and left home, and Eve was left alone with her mother) when he helped to rescue a parcel that she'd dropped in the canal. "He was neither good- nor bad-looking. He had short brown hair and a pleasant face you forgot the moment you turned your back." But Tommy was kind, and soon they were married.

While Hill doesn't give her tale a specific location or time, the bleak, industrial setting and the hopeless poverty of a failing manufacturing town have the feel of the North during the lean years of the 1930s. Work is dangerous and hard to come by; children are many and horizons narrow. Eve withers in the grey light of the town and so Tommy takes her to live in a cottage where she can see the sunshine and the countryside. Their happiness, as well as the physical distance of their new home, set them apart, as Eve's increasingly careworn sister Miriam – married to a man who is anything but kind, and weary from the children she has borne him – bitterly notes.

Eve and Tommy, in the sunlight and fresh air, finally have a child of their own, and the pure simplicity of their happiness radiates from the page. But little Jeannie Eliza, after a terrible, burning fever, dies, leaving her parents almost silent with grief. Soon, Tommy also falls sick, and as he grows weaker and the cancer within him gets stronger, Eve prepares herself for being totally alone.

She sees Tommy's fear, and feels his shame at not being able to provide for her. But the night that Eve, Tommy and the local doctor think will be Tommy's last brings a great, miraculous and mysterious heat to his body, and by morning his growths are gone. Tommy discovers that, as well as being healed himself, he can now save others – a factory worker crushed by debris, a young girl so pain-stricken that she cannot go on. But soon Tommy's kindnesses see the town turn superstitious and suspicious of his strange powers.

A Kind Man takes on the tone of a fable; a morality tale that sees Tommy put in an impossible position. To say more would be to ruin the story, but the delicate balance between kindness and bitterness, hope and despair, a dying man and a dying town, are almost unbearably poignant. This is a short book that will live long in the memory.

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