A beautifully written story about male friendships and the First World War
Susan Hill, almost always a writer whose fictional books deal with ethical or philosophical issues as well as whatever else she is writing about, writes in three main styles, a couple of which are ‘genre fiction’ Firstly, books with a supernatural, often gothic element – most famous of which was Woman In Black – book, then stage play, TV version, radio play, then film – I’m sure there is a tee shirt too! Then there is her incarnation as a crime writer, with the Simon Serrailler series (number 8 is the latest). Finally, there are literary fiction books which are outside a genre, though she is always a writer of literary fiction, whether or not her writing also fits within genre.
Strange Meeting belongs to this third category. Though of course particularly apposite in this hundredth year anniversary of the outbreak of the First War, Hill’s book about two soldiers in that war, and the deep friendship which develops between them, was published some forty years ago.
It is a short, quietly powerful read. The focus is on the two central characters, young officers. John Hilliard comes from a typically correct, emotionally repressed background, and is isolated, restrained and unable to be easy with his fellows. David Barton is one of the golden ones, a young man of great charm, ease and likeability, with a natural warmth which pleases everyone he meets. He comes from an unusual family, where such ability to express delight, and to not keep a stiffened lip, is responsible for his sunniness.
The two develop a friendship and love for each other – though whether that love is platonic or sexual is never mentioned – and in many ways Hill is respectful of a time and place where the strong expression of friendship may or may not mean either overt or covert sexual feelings. (There of course are biblical echoes in the forenames of the two young men)
The relationship, and the changes which the horrors of the trenches visit upon the soldiers themselves, their relationships with their families and the wider society back home who are still caught up in early jingoism, and a belief that the way will be a short push and then over, are beautifully drawn
Given the facts of that war, there can only be 4 possible outcomes to this story, only one of which would be less plausible than the other three. In a sense the story of ‘what happens’ is not the point of the book – which is the relationship, the characters, and the experience of the men in that war, and their estrangement, by and large, from an ignorant public at home, who, not having experienced the horrors themselves, cannot fully understand the terrible changes which happen when such hell is engaged with.
Immediately, he was conscious of his own flesh, of the nerves beneath the skin, of the bone and muscle which obeyed him: clench, unclench, move this finer, bend that. His hands looked huge and pale under the water. He had never realised before how much he cared about his own body, simply because it was so familiar, because he knew better than he knew anything every shape and crease of it, the exact width of knuckle, the flatness of his fingernails. So that, when he imagined his hand torn off at the wrist it was not the thought of the pain which so terrified him, but simply the loss of a part of himself, something he had always known. He was his hand – and his legs and neck, ribs and groin
My only cavil with the book is the full and frank letters which Barton writes to his family. Officers of course censored the letters home which the ‘other ranks’ sent, but I found myself working hard to suspend a sense that Barton’s letters would surely have been censored by those of higher rank, and if not, as Hilliard was party to the letters Barton sent and received, that he, as a very correct man, would have intervened and censored the truths which Barton was telling his family about the awful futility of the war.
However – why the present front cover photo for the Kindle edition shows a group of remarkably modern squaddies is a bit of an artist and publicist goof I would have thought!