Sunday, 16 January 2011

The Small Hand by Susan Hill

Susan Hill's new ghost story is a beautiful little book with an ornate cover that hints at the sinister events inside.  The narrator, Adam Snow, is driving through the Sussex downs on a summer evening when he gets lost, and finds himself at the deserted and decayed White House.  An ancient sign proclaiming that the garden is closed indicates that the place was once visited, even renowned, but the place is now overgrown with brambles and ivy, the house clearly abandoned.  Intrigued and fascinated, Adam explores as far as he can, and as darkness falls he takes one last look at the place.  In the still moonlight, Adam first feels the small, cold hand of a child creep into his own.  But there is no child to be seen. 

Adam, made of sterner stuff than I would have been, is more interested than terrified and pursues his interest in the mysterious White House, until the Small Hand becomes decidedly disturbing to him.  His efforts to escape it will take him to a monastery high in the French mountains, and this journey will bring him to the extremes of terror and a sense of deep peace.  The monastery and its landscape are beautifully evoked by Hill; her prose is so lucid that you feel you are breathing the clear mountain air. Her descriptions of the White House itself, and the other locations of the narrative, are equally effective; in a short novel, not a word is wasted.

Adam's character is a little flat, but this is probably necessary for the workings of the narrative: if he was more excitable, he would have been terrified rather than intrigued by his first encounter with the Small Hand.  There are points where Hill seems to avoid generating more tension, for example in Adam's choice not to make a second trip to the monastery, possibly through a commitment to realism that might be incompatible with the ghost story genre, but this is a very minor quibble.

The end of the story seemed to me satisfyingly ambiguous, even though the origins of the Small Hand are explained.  What is the motivation of Lady Merriman, wife of one of Adam's richest clients, who feeds him snippets of information about the White House, but not the most obvious part of the story?  Was Adam's encounter with the former owner of the White House a dream, a hallucination, a step through a rip in time? Most of all, how will Adam continue to live with the knowledge he holds at the end of the book?  These ambiguities help this short novel to resonate, much in the manner of a M R James story; like a M R James story, this is a good book to read by the fire on a winter evening.

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