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Susan Hill's novel about the First World War was written over 40 years ago but still worth reading even though so much material has been added to the library of Great War memoirs and fiction in recent years. Hilliard and Barton are two officers of different temperament, Hilliard depressed and detached from the start of the novel, Barton more optimistic though less experienced. Their relationship deepens from wary friendship to love, though it's undemonstrative and restrained. Barton writes long and cheerful letters to his huge family, so that they begin to regard HIlliard as one of their own. But when will it be Barton's turn to face the fighting? The novel conveys very well the boredom that soldiers had to put up with as they waited to go to the Front. Manoeuvres and routines, pointless exercises and drills were carried out to keep them active, but nothing could prepare them for the slaughter that was to come. Susan Hill must have done some painstaking research - and without the benefit of the internet - to understand what the soldiers went through in the trenches and behind the lines. It's impossible not to feel angry about the waste of lives, the arbitrariness of war and death. Some readers may feel that the two main characters are TOO restrained about their emotions, but I feel they were both very much of their time, when so much went unspoken.
Finally, the Kindle version has been published! I initially read this novel as part of WW1 studies for English Literature and decided to re-read the story which has haunted me ever since.
We begin with John Hilliard, a restrained soldier currently on convalescence from the Front and how he feels out of place in the domestic, peaceful settings of his once familiar home. Communicating with his family is hard; it is difficult to convey what is truthfully occurring beyond the British newspapers and he wants more than anything to return to the Front where everything is simple, understood by other veterans.
Among the new faces introduced to Hilliard's battalion is that of David Barton, a slightly younger man who freely shares his feelings and opinions with the others. Untouched by the trauma of war and the misery it breeds, Hilliard and his comrades are drawn towards Barton - and Hilliard more so, when he suddenly finds an outlet for his roiling emotions, as well as a friend he will cherish for life.
Although many readers have criticised the narrative for its distant emotions, I felt that the novel was just right, precisely measured, in the way it portrayed the characters and described the obscenities of war. At times it does become stiff with its constant use of affirmatives ("yes"), but the emptiness of the people walking through such vivid landscape is painfully clear to the reader who is struggling to know who they are.
I don't believe, like some, that this novel is about a gay romance. I had my suspicions when I read this novel ten years ago, back as a student, but now, as an older, and hopefully wiser, adult, I see this friendship between Hilliard and Barton as strictly that: a friendship. In stressful times, the unlikeliest people come together and share their thoughts and emotions, and just because two men happen to do this in a war does not mean that the two of them are closet homosexuals. As a person similar to Hilliard, I can understand how such friendships can come about with people like Barton. If you keep things to yourself because you have nothing in common with others or feel that they won't understand what you mean, and you suddenly find a Barton willing to listen, to tease you out of your shell, and still stick around, despite your social awkwardness, then of course you will feel like Hilliard is feeling. But that isn't gay!
Wholeheartedly, I would recommend this story to anyone with an interest in WW1, though it isn't a historic account by any means; it is merely a representation.
I really enjoyed this. At first with lingering doubts. After all, the story is set on the battle fields of France, WW1. Would the descriptive power, of the author, do justice to the horrendous condtions, and awful carnage endured by the soldiers in the Trenches. And, yes, it must certainly does. I enjoyed the simplicity of the story. Two Officers John Hilliard and David Barton form an almost unspoken bond, during their time in the Trenches. The backgrounds of these two are very different. And compensate for the lack of emotion and togetherness as a family, that John experiences with his own personal life. There is always the looming threat of going into battle. As the story unfolds, John and Hilliard are moved further and further up to the front line of fighting. Powerless to be able to control events John becomes obsessive in his fear that David will be killed. The ending suggests the reason why David - by fortune perhaps, or destiny - becomes part of John's life. The story always moves forward. But not at the extent that the empathy shared between John and David is under valued. Finally, the one scene that will stay with me. Hilliard is on the train leaving for the Front. He looks out of the window as the train is slowly departing from the station. His Mother is standing there, in her fine clothes, aloof despite trying to show some emotion at the departure of her Son. Who may never return alive. Yet neither she nor John wave. She stands immobile as the train picks up speed and is finally lost in the distance.
This is a short novel, easily read in a couple of hours, but one where the number of pages belies the depth of anguish and emotion which is contained within it. Set during the first years of the Western Front, this brings together all the squalor, the hardship, the antiquated tactics and the almost impossible number of deaths that took place each day.
And yet, at its heart, this is also a book about intimacy, about fellowship and companionship, about the ties that bind people in love even (or especially?) under the most unpropitious circumstances.
Hill always writes with a lucid restraint and a beautifully pared back style that means her highly-crafted writing disappears into the story, never drawing attention to itself. Emotionally acute and very human, this makes the tragedy of war fresh all over again.
Susan Hill's writing is masterly, and, therefore, she can draw the reader along, even if the subject-matter makes one feel one wants to drag one's feet! The First World War is not a pretty or comfortable subject, but Hill creates compelling scenes, and beguiling ones, and the story of two men meeting and becoming friends unfolds. The depth of the friendship, and the nature of it, is handled delicately, as it creeps up on them, and on the reader. As one man and his family become the salvation and future of the other, we glimpse a different world, which was itself divided into the worlds of home and of war. It was a world where those at home were no more prepared to understand and accept what was really going on 'at the front', than it was prepared to entertain the idea of relationships outside of what it designated 'the norm'.
I wasn't expecting this story from Hill. I have read King of the Castle and The Woman in Black, and both were such dark stories, that I wasn't really sure I was meant to read her books - preferring generally something less sinister.
This, however, is a beautiful, quiet, and moving story. A World War 1 story seen, through the eyes of Barton and Hilliard.
I learnt more of what it may have been like than from much of what I have already seen and read.
See what you think, but I love Hill's light but brilliant touch
This is one of the most poignant books I have ever read. At times it had me in tears, just trying to apprehend the suffering of these poor men. I felt the book was also a Love Story, about two men forced together, and their lives becoming intertwined in ways that exorbitantly pulled their relationship with each other ever stronger It is not the type of book I normally read as I am not normally into War Novels. But now I am hooked! Please read this book as it is full of feeling, emotion, sadness, pain and suffering, of two men, and those around them. My only criticism The Cover Picture, as I am sure these are not WW1 Helmets & Armaments. I may be wrong!
Like Hilliard (one of the key characters in this WW1 story), by the end, the reader has shared the wonderfully detailed letters sent home by his fellow officer, Barton, and shared the loving, understanding replies. His own family relationships are different, and he has felt isolated throughout the horrific experiences of trench warfare, wounding, and death. Hilliard is more drawn toward Barton's family than to his own, which is why he seeks them out. Pictures of England intersperse with the horrors of France with an emotional intensity which makes this so much more than just another war story.
In this novel, Susan Hill captures (I think) the atmosphere of the times and the experiences of the men who fought in the trenches during the first world war. More than this, she presents a refreshing look at the growing friendship between two very different men who have been thrown together by circumstances. Her book reminds us too that these bonds of friendship, wrought by the sharing hard experiences, can become bonds of love in the non-sexual sense of the word; a refreshing approach in this day and age.
Says is all really , I loved it , beautifully written and conceived , characters that touched my heart and a scenario so horrible ,so frightening but written with lyricism - but it failed to deliver at the final reckoning which is why it lost a star . A shame , as I am left feeling empty and cheated . Susan Hill has a habit of doing this, almost as though she herself cannot bear to bring the book to a satisfactory conclusion or maybe she does not know to do so - quite puts me off buying and reading her books at all .