With her prodigious output and range, Susan Hill has been called a modern-day Charles Dickens. The strength of her latest novel supports that comparisonby Amanda Craig / January 26, 2011 / Leave a comment
A Kind Man by Susan Hill (Chatto & Windus, £10.99)
Of all the contemporary novelists who are compared to Dickens, Susan Hill probably has the best claim. Her protean ability to turn her hand to almost every genre from literary fiction, short stories and plays to ghost, children’s and detective novels; her entrepreneurial flair in starting up a small publishing business; her energetic and occasionally exasperating blogging both on the Spectator website and on Facebook are reminiscent of Boz [Dickens’s pen-name]. So, too, is her preoccupation with innocence, violence, greed and the supernatural. Like Dickens, she was successful from an early age, tends to depict people from a multitude of social classes with interest and compassion, and has been something of an outsider in literary life.
Certainly, outsiders tend to be her protagonists, and her latest novel, in a career spanning 50 years, is no exception. A Kind Man opens with a couple who have lost their only child, aged four, to illness. The setting is an industrial town where unemployment is about to soar; the time is left vague but the spare prose and mood of deep grief recalls Hill’s early novel, In the Springtime of the Year, and her non-fiction account of losing her second baby, Family. Eve and Tommy Carr, the kind man of the title, live in modest circumstances. He works as a printer, and she tends their small home on the edge of the town.
The couple do not talk of their grief— Hill’s protagonists, whether ghost-haunted or trying to work out the motives for murder, tend to take British reticence to extremes—but their lives are about to become harder. Eve has a troubled relationship with her younger sister Miriam, who has borne six sons by the selfish, indolent John Bullard. Miriam has never seen the point of Tommy, a quiet, shy man with “nothing… memorable about him” other than his kindness. It is his kindness which makes him remarkable in many small ways, and also in much stranger ones.
For this is not only that rare thing in fiction, the story of a happy marriage, but of a series of supernatural events akin to those in Stephen King’s The Green Mile. At 31, Tommy contracts what is clearly a terminal case of cancer. Corpse-pale, he is sent home from work and not expected to last the night. The Carrs are too poor to afford…