Posts Tagged ‘Love’

What’s the bravest thing you ever did?
He spat into the road a bloody phlegm. Getting up this morning, he said.

That is how bleak the world of this book is. Tragically, lyrically and devastatingly bleak, but bleak nonetheless. Nothing grows. Nothing lives. The world contains nothing of beauty or of value and very little of utilitarian use. Whilst the man and boy we follow are “good guys”, the rest of the world appears to consist of “bad guys” by which McCarthy means paedophiles, rapists, murderers and cannibals.

The story, such as it is, is ridiculously simple: a man and his son are walking south in search of something. This is narrative stripped bare, stripped to its literal bones. It has the sparseness of a fable or an allegory or a parable and puts me in mind of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress more than anything else.

The setting, however, is science fiction: a post-apocalyptic vision of hopelessness: animal and vegetable life appears to be devastated. The word “dead” occurs so frequently it would be easy to mock. The man and his son are

Treading the dead world under like rats on a wheel. The nights dead still and deader black. So cold….

The road crossed a dried slough where pipes of ice stood out of the frozen mud like formations in a cave. The remains of an old fire by the side of the road. Beyond that a long concrete causeway. A dead swamp. Dead trees standing out of the gray water trailing gray and relic hagmoss.

Again, for me, echoes abound, particularly of Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

The man and boy are very literally walking through the shadow of the the valley of death. I’m not so naive and McCarthy’s not so pedestrian that you can see direct parallels but this novel in which the man and boy “carry the fire” is embedded in these narratives and lyrics of Christian pilgrimage and Christian faith. And it is through that fire that such a bleak novel lives on with such optimism and hope. Throughout the novel, the man’s faith is repeatedly rewarded by hidden caches of food or the remnants of an orchard.

The other story which echoes through my reading of The Road is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. The road itself as a symbol; the pair of travellers; the absurdity, beauty and pathos in their interactions.

But the novel goes beyond that Christianity and beyond the evocation of other texts. There is a deeply human relationship between the man and boy, full of the love and hope, the frustration and fear which is so recognisable. And almost unbearably painful: the man’s horror over the gauntness of his son, his sense of inadequacy trying to comfort him, the bleak practicality of his teaching his son how to shoot himself. There is never a shred of doubt that this father would die before allowing harm to come to his son; and would suffer worse than death to allow his son to escape suffering.

And his final words to his son. Oh god. As a dad, that final conversation was worth reading the whole book for. And all delivered in terse almost monosyllabic dialogue.
It can sometimes be hard to think of strong and positive father figures in literature (Atticus Finch, Jean Valjean excepted and I’m sure many others who haven’t come to mind yet…) so I notice them when I come across them. And strong father-son relationships seem even rarer.

Anyway, I digress…

The writing style of the novel is different to the traditional: the sentences are often fragmented and, when not, they are short and simple, only linking clauses together with coordinating conjunctions, the “and” echoing through the prose like the tired footfalls of the protagonists. There is extremely scant use of adverbs. The man and boy are never named. Apostrophes and dialogue markers are omitted sometimes.

I’m more sanguine about that that most of the commentators on Goodreads. The sentence structures work beautifully well and, as I’ve said, contribute to the lyricism in their sparseness. And, even if I mourn the absent apostrophes just a little, this is one of the most hauntingly beautiful books around. A writer who can come up with this line

“If he is not the word of God God never spoke”

should not be criticised because some people would prefer a comma there.

Haunting. Beautiful. Muscular.

There is so much to admire about this book that I feel almost guilty that I didn’t love it. And I feel I might struggle to explain why without losing sight of the fact that it is a great book and beautifully written in places.

As you’d expect from Waters, The Paying Guests inhabits a very specific historical moment. In this case, she takes is to the social upheaval of the 1920s and the interbellum years. The aftermath of The Great War looms over the novel: a generation of men have been lost; soldiers returning have found themselves unemployed and unsupported; the division between the gentry and clerk classes are dissolving. Again, as you’d expect of Waters, the historical details are utterly convincing; her language never jars you from that period; her dialogue feels completely authentic. The voices of her characters and the way that their language is almost insufficient to reflect the depth of the emotions, passions and pain her characters feel is wonderfully evocative. It somehow recalls my grandmother.

Waters locates the writing in a traditional grand house in Champion Hill, London – a house used to a team of servants and a family of five before the war, but which now houses only our main character, Frances Wray, and her mother. Saddled with debts, the Wrays take in a married couple – Ken and Lillian Barber – as lodgers in order to maintain the cost of the house upkeep. The novel opens with the Barbers arrival and the tension created by that arrival: the hesitation over whether to offer or even drink tea with the Barbers on their arrival; the awkward maneuverings and negotiations between two families finding a space between cool civility, pragmatic commerce, resentment and an uncomfortable enforced intimacy.


It comes as no surprise to those who have read Waters before that the awkward intimacy between Francis Wray and Lillian Barber becomes something more romantic and passionate.

And Waters is just as fabulous writing about emotions as she is in capturing a voice. Just read the following extract:

It is one of the most beautiful and natural analogies of the quickening of love that I have read. Domestic. Sensuous. Gorgeous. And the contrast between the narrator’s lyricism and the characters’ almost inarticulate and gauche attempts to communicate those feelings was exquisitely painful.

Locating the story firmly within the Champion Hill house also worked wonderfully. It became claustrophobic and enclosing… reflecting the limitations and restrictions imposed on the characters by society and morality and family. The house almost became a character in its own right and a reflection of Frances’ own psychological state.

It is the second half of the novel, however, that lost me a little. The novel shifts from the drama of Frances and Lillian’ love to a more plot driven crime thriller. The turning point is quite horrific to read but something gets lost.

I stopped liking either of the two characters.

Their inability to communicate, which in the first part of the novel, was endearing and overcome through their contact – her depictions of skin are beautiful – became frankly irritating. Their lack of agency</em, of control, became tedious. I'm sure that it was a realistic portrait of the lack of agency women had in the 1920s and the way the patriarchal machinery of society robbed women of exactly that self determinism.

However, as a novel, it alienated me.

I didn’t find their actions and reactions credible in the second half of the novel… even though I know that Waters is a writer for whom credibility and authenticity are paramount.

It is odd though that this is the second lesbian novel I’ve read in a row, following on from Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal . The comparison is interesting: where Catton’s novel is arch and self-aware and overtly literary, Waters is real and – I keep coming back to this word – authentic. Thinking about the two books together, and being fully aware of the subjectivity of this, it crystallises what it is in books that really grips me: it is the artfulness, the language games, the twisting of not just the plot but the very relationship I have – as reader – with the writer and his or her creations.


I do not generally choose war books. In all honesty, had I come across this book with this cover in a shop or library I would probably have skipped over it. I like Susan Hill; I dislike war. I am particularly hesitant about The Great War novels written recently: I’m uncomfortable with the glorification of war which can appear; and equally uncomfortable with the indelicate emphasis on the gore and violence; and no more comfortable with a romanticised vision of the war. And I worry that, with the centenary, we may get a lot more of it.

So, no, to sum up, this is not a book that I would have selected naturally.

Which goes to show how our preconceptions can mislead us: this is a powerfully moving book about friendship and love within war. It is not about war.

We get a snapshot of John Hilliard’s life between his recuperation from one leg injury until he returns to the front line and sustains another leg injury. The first injury is relatively minor and sends Hilliard home to recuperate; the second is significantly more serious and sends him back to England for the rest of the war. During this period, Hilliard is introduced to Lieutenant David Barton, a new and innocent officer in the army, and the friendship, the relationship – and, yes, the love – between these two is the heart of the novel.

Reviews on Goodreads – and, it appears from Hill’s afterword to the novel, many comments since the book’s publication – seem unduly obsessed with these men’s relationship as a homosexual one. It saddens me that some people think that that’s even worth considering! It wouldn’t change the depth of feeling those two men had for one another; it wouldn’t alter the beauty of their relationship; it wouldn’t vary the strength that each man drew from the other. I happily recognise it as a form of love – and the Greeks knew that the emotions we call love encompass a range of varied and different forms. And – seriously – if we accept that theirs is a loving friendship or a loving relationship, all this fuss is about what physical and sexual acts may have occurred between two men who – and here’s the important bit – never existed!

So yes, these men love each other. They meet in unassuming but reasonably peaceful conditions in a rest camp away from the frontline. Truths are told which have been repressed before. Intimacies forged. The coldness of Hilliard’s family is replaced by the warmth of Barton’s.

Love is returned to over and over in the novel: Hilliard’s love for his sister is warmly and tenderly described as a memory and her transformation into a coldly formal wife is as heart breaking in its way as his love for Barton is heart warming.

But ultimately and inevitably the war re-asserts itself: Barton is exposed to increasing levels of death and destruction; his innocence and good nature, which had thawed Hilliard’s weariness, is tested and tarred by the increasing violence he witnesses as they are moved closer to the front line.

The story also explores the power of writing: Hilliard’s inclusion in the correspondence between Barton and his family and their sharing of books at the front helped to forge their intimacy to such an extent that, on his visit to Barton’s home, Hilliard had a beautiful sense of returning home which contrasted beautifully with the sense of exclusion and alienation Hill creates when he stays at his own parents’ house in the opening pages.

This is not, however, an easy book to read. The first few pages recounting Hilliard’s final day of recuperation follow a convoluted chronology as the past (occasionally distant and occasionally recent) intrude upon the present. Whilst this lends a lyrical dimension to the writing which I loved, it doesn’t aid reading – although the sense of Hilliard as being ripped out of time and adrift was absolutely effective.

The other issue which might put some readers off is the extent to which this novel relies on dialogue. The narrative descriptions are effective but relatively sparse (in marked contrast to Hill’s gothic novel The Woman In Black). Dialogue is – as I say to my students – really hard to make authentic and Hill succeeds in the vast majority of the novel but there are the occasional overly philosophical expository moments which aren’t out of keeping with the characters but felt perhaps a tad forced. It’s no surprise that the reason I did pick it up is because it’s on the AS English Language and Literature course in their spoken language unit!

In any event, this is a deeply moving and tragically painful book. As it acquired its name from the Wilfred Owen poem of the same name, here it is!

Strange Meeting

It seemed that out of the battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which Titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall;
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand fears that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
“Strange friend,” I said, “Here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said the other, “Save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something has been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress,
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery;
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .”

This book has been lurking on my to-read list for a while but has been eclipsed by work, work and work and applying for my own job again and other books and has just slid…

Then I lent it to a friend who devoured it in 24 hours and proceeded to try to talk to me about it – damn her! – and I felt like a numpty having not read it yet whilst she gushed about how much she had cried.

So it was somewhat shamefacedly that I picked it back up again.

And realised what an absolute gem I had nearly missed!


Harold Fry is a retiree living an outwardly calm and quiet life behind net curtains in Kingsbridge in Devon. He and his wife Maureen rarely speak, sleep separately and circle each other like different planets orbiting the same star. They remind me sharply of my own grandparents in their excessively cleaned home. My grandmother used to polish the apples. With polish.

One day, a letter arrives from an ex-colleague of Harold’s, Queenie Hennessy. She is dying of cancer. Harold pens a reply, pops to the nearest postbox, and then decides to deliver it by hand. To her nursing home. In Berwick-upon-Tweed.

By foot.

Along the way, Harold encounters a variety of people all bearing their own stories and goodness; and Harold recalls, rediscovers and reconciles himself with the tragedy in his own past.

It is a truly beautiful book! The deep humanity within it is hugely touching. As is the quiet dignity of Harold and the aching struggle that he and Maureen have to communicate.

There was a personal interest in the book: having moved from the Midlands to the North East to the South West, I have literally travelled Harold’s road. The places – the towns – he visits however are briefly mentioned: Exeter, Taunton, Bath, Ashby de la Zouch, Darlington are little more than names and sketchy details. There is, however, a deeper love of England and nature beyond any passing urban description.

This book revolves deeply around the love and pain of family: the pain of a child feeling unwanted by his parents; of a father being unable to connect with his son; of a husband and wife estranged within the same home; of how the humdrum routine of life can dull the passions and joys and racing heart of earlier time.

Joyce’s language is full of the quiet dignity of her characters. By way of an example, Harold

wished the man would honour the meaning of words, instead of using them as ammunition.

There is a twist to the novel – which I won’t spoil for you – and a critical event twenty years earlier around which the novel revolves. I am pleased to say that it was a twist that I hadn’t anticipated or expected .. and that rarely happens these days!

Returning to my grandparents, my Grandad did run away from home once. On my Granny’s birthday. He didn’t get terribly far: he was wearing slippers and their drive was gravelled and hurt his feet. So he popped over the grass to the neighbours and knocked on their door. Just imagine how far he could have gone had their drive been tarmacked!