Susan Hill was appointed CBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List on Saturday, so it seems appropriate today to talk about a book of hers, not a new one, but a novel first published in 1974 and lately re-issued, In the Springtime of the Year.
Just as in the more recent A Kind Man, no particular period or setting are specified here; there are clues as to the when and the where - this is rural country, and early twentieth century, perhaps - but that deliberate sketchiness means the reader's attention is directed towards the central characters and the relative simplicity of the plot, and that is done to great effect. It's a piece whose mood is all-important, its emotional pitch always contained even though its subject-matter is at one extreme of the human experience. This is a book about love, loss, and above all grief - a meditation on life when it seems devoid of meaning. It is done in as honest, direct and unsentimental a way as you could find, I think, and it's perhaps all the more moving because of that.
Married just a year, the sudden death of Ruth's forester husband Ben destroys her world. Locked into sorrow and isolated by her mourning, she walls herself up in her solitude, allowing only Ben's younger brother Jo to breach her seclusion with his natural compassion and unforced fellow feeling. The days pass and the seasons change but still Ruth can do nothing but wait "for something to come from outside and shake her alive", though eventually it will take another stark and tragic event to break the pattern of Ruth's despair and renew her sense of purpose.
Spare, level, lyrical prose pares the story down to its essentials, and that close but subtle examination of all planes of the state of grieving makes this a meaningful book and a memorable one.