Skip to Content

Books

Too good for words

I confess myself baffled by this fable. The narrative is as clear, the prose as uncluttered, as one expects from Susan Hill, but its very simplicity leaves me wondering whether I’ve missed the point.

15 January 2011

12:00 AM

15 January 2011

12:00 AM

A Kind Man Susan Hill

Chatto, pp.10.99, 192

I confess myself baffled by this fable. The narrative is as clear, the prose as uncluttered, as one expects from Susan Hill, but its very simplicity leaves me wondering whether I’ve missed the point.

I confess myself baffled by this fable. The narrative is as clear, the prose as uncluttered, as one expects from Susan Hill, but its very simplicity leaves me wondering whether I’ve missed the point.

The strapline tells me to expect a tale of ‘greed, goodness, and an extraordinary miracle’. Well, it doesn’t seem to be about greed at all. There isn’t a greedy person in it. Needy, yes; it deals with need. ‘Goodness’ is more like it. It is an analysis of goodness, and more specifically of kindness, of the moral interconnectedness of human beings.


The ‘extraordinary miracle’ (is there any other sort?) befalls Tommy Carr, the ‘kind man’ of the title, a man who has ‘a deep sense of what was good or even holy but no connection with any church or chapel’. To create universality of meaning, Hill avoids anchoring her tale too fixedly in time and place, but it feels like the 1930s in the industrial north. Tommy marries Eve and takes her to live in the last cottage between the gritty manufacturing town and ‘the peak, touched by sunshine’ that represents freedom and, perhaps, the spiritual world.

Thus Tommy and Eve are placed apart from their families and workmates; other factors also separate them. Thrifty, sober and hardworking, they have a loving, inarticulate mutual understanding. Their one child, Jeannie Eliza, is perfect in every way, in contrast to the many unruly, uncared-for sons of Eve’s downtrodden sister Miriam, just as Miriam’s lazy husband is the opposite of Tommy — the opposite of kind. Tommy and Eve have hens, a vegetable patch, bright china on the dresser. Their happiness seems complete, until Jeannie Eliza dies of a sudden fever.

Her loss takes physical shape in Tommy, who within a few months is devoured by malignant growths. But as he is on the point of death, the burning heat that carried off Jeannie Eliza transfers itself to Tommy and resurrects him. Soon he discovers that, by a laying-on of hands, he can cure others with this mysterious heat. People pester him for treatment, which he gives, refusing payment.

His gift, and the purity of his kindness, however, come to be viewed with suspicion, not least by the formerly friendly doctor who accuses him of fraudulence. Isolated by his specialness, he becomes unemployable. The temptation to accept money becomes too great, but of course, as soon as he does so, the gift deserts him.

The tale is so clean and spare that every detail is telling, or feels as if it ought to be. The problem is that when a false note is struck, it resonates. Would an uneducated woman like Eve perceive the spring sky as ‘lapis’? Why does she say ‘the eggs are so good just now’ straight after Christmas, when it’s unlikely the hens would be laying at all? Why does Tommy, who’s wasting away, put ‘fresh notches’ into his belt with his awl — surely he’d only make one notch at a time? Tommy is accused of being ‘perfectly fit’ by a factory woman — is that the kind of phrase she’d use?

I wouldn’t mind, or even notice, such details were I convinced by the whole, but I’m not. I find myself impatient with the boringly perfect Tommy, and I long for a character who can string more than three words together. ‘Nothing was said by any of them’ — this phrase, or something like it, crops up all too often. I’m an admirer of Susan Hill’s work, but I’m not sure what she’s getting at here, though I accept this may be my fault, not hers.


Show comments
Close