Alone with her father’s dead body, Olive Piper says, ‘I don’t know anything, except what I feel, and how can anyone know more?’ In Susan Hill’s new novel, Olive’s acceptance of the primacy of feeling represents a coming of age. Her maturity is achieved at a cost.
As in a number of her recent novels — Black Sheep and A Kind Man — Hill explores with great economy an idea of the ubiquity of differentness. Olive, her very name suggestive of something drab and unobtrusive, is a girl of conventional background: in appearance and, apparently, outlook and ability, she is unremarkable. Her life seems predestined for ordinariness. As a schoolgirl she accepts a career in teaching as ‘inevitable’, though she remains convinced that ‘real life was elsewhere’.
There are moments in Olive’s journey when she nudges close to territory more typical of Anita Brookner’s heroines: an unblinking acceptance of her own limitations and a recognition of the inevitability — and painful fallout — of mishap. Mishaps do come her way — brutal, unfair and in each case not overly surprising. But Hill’s concern is not with a Brookner-style exposure of her heroine’s tortuous interior life. As an English student at university, Olive fears ‘lavishness of expression’. In this third-person narrative, Hill’s pared-down prose mirrors Olive’s character: sensible and unselfpitying, anything but lavish in thought, utterance or gesture.
From the remorselessness of Olive’s misadventures Hill unravels a sense of her heroine growing in independence and self-awareness — hardly a novel idea, but one that she successfully refreshes. Olive learns from those around her, all of whom fail her at key moments. At every important juncture in her life Olive is essentially alone. This aloneness becomes central to her emotional growth. Only when she ceases second-guessing other people’s feelings does she approach an understanding of her own: ‘She felt a burden lift not from her shoulders but from her heart, so that it was free again and no one’s but her own, after all.’ Possibly this is a conceit more typical of the present than that period of the recent past in which Hill sets her story. She is sufficiently adroit to shield her heroine from suggestions of self-absorption or narcissism.
In keeping with her recent non-Simon Serrailler novels, From the Heart shows Susan Hill working in a consciously spare, undecorated style: the novel moves quickly, its sentiments pithily expressed. Such sparseness is central to its impact.