In the run up to Christmas, we briefly discussed Festive Reading, and I was relieved to see that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t prepare that much, and had never really thought about it. It doesn’t get much more unseasonal than the book I was reading in late December – Susan Hill’s In the Springtime of the Year. Look, another season is right there in the title… and, do you know what, I rather wish I had read it in Spring now. (I also rather wish I knew whether or not seasons should be capitalised, so answers on a postcard please. Or, alternatively, in the comments box.)
I’ve made no secret about my love of Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing, and shortly after reading that I made my first acquaintance with one of her novels, the captivating and unsettling The Beacon (more here) – I can’t remember who recommended I try In The Springtime of the Year next, but thank you whoever it was – it’s another short, sad, and often rather brilliant book. Published in 1974, it’s theme is eternal – the loss of a loved one. In this instance, it is the sudden and accidental death of a young man called Ben, killed by a falling tree in the opening pages of the novel. The novel follows his wife Ruth, in her early twenties, coping with his death, and coming to terms with it.
I daresay that sounds quite slight as a synopsis, but some of my favourite writers are those who can weave an involving narrative without huge set pieces or plot turns. The biggest event having happened in the first few pages, this novel is more a study of grief than a rollercoaster of events. From the immediate aftermath; the funeral; Ruth’s difficult relations with Ben’s family; closer kinship with Ben’s younger brother; dealing with Ben’s possessions; moving onwards to the future without him – each stage is subtly and intimately shown – never too much introspection, and always writing of so high a standard that it doesn’t feel like cliche. This sort of writing (especially in the days of soap operas) must be incredibly difficult to do, for the path is so strewn with cliches, but Hill makes it look easy.
She thought suddenly, I am alone, I am entirely alone on this earth; there are no other people, no animals or birds or insects, no breaths or heartbeats, there is no growing, the leaves do not move and grass is dry. There is nothing.
And this was a new feeling. No, not a feeling. Loneliness was a feeling, and a fear of the empty house and of the long days and nights, and the helpless separation from Ben – feelings. This was different. A condition. A fact. Simply, being absolutely alone.
My one problem with the novel was that everybody in the village seemed to feel Ben’s death incredibly deeply – the novel states that even those familiar with death were especially affected by his. I suppose that isn’t a problem, but it might have been more realistic to contrast Ruth’s deep grief with those around who, though sad, cannot feel it to the same extent. For that is how such deaths affect neighbourhoods, is it not?
Nobody very close to me has ever died, not yet, and I still found this novel incredibly affecting. I also felt – though, again, I cannot support this from my own experience – that In the Springtime of the Year could be a huge comfort to anyone going through that. Or perhaps to those around them, to help them understand. I’m in danger of getting emotional here, aren’t I? And I shouldn’t forget that Susan Hill hasn’t set out to write a grievance counselling book – though there may be overlap, this is primarily a very well written, subtle, and touching novel, and that is certainly achievement enough.