Walls closing in

Winter on the Preseli Hills, Pembrokeshire, Wales

Black Sheep by Susan Hill.
Vintage Books 2014 (2015)

Whenever he clambered down the steep track home he felt the walls closing in on him and his spirit shrivel and darken.

Chapter 11

Unremittingly bleak, Susan Hill’s novella set in a fictional pit village focuses on the Howker family, sometime in the 1930s. Villages built up around collieries exist only for the colliery’s needs, with the miners’ day based on the progression of shift, meal, sleep and return to work, the chapel or the weekend dance at the Institute bringing some scant variety, and the woman’s role confined purely to servicing the requirements of their menfolk’s work.

Life beyond the pit village of Mount of Zeal can scarcely be imagined by its inhabitants, but at least two and maybe three of the Howker family dream of escaping the misery of the daily treadmill. When they make the attempt, one to try his hand at sheep farming, say, or another to marry outside of the workforce, they run the risk of being regarded as the black sheep of the family.

Will they make their own way in life or will circumstances force them to return to the fold?

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He could not make sense of it and for the first time in his adult life, in the darkness, he wept and then sat, simply waiting for the morning.

Chapter 18

Misery memoirs, which were a literary thing at one stage, never appealed to me, nor fiction that seems akin to it: I know that as a genre so-called misery porn can inform, even inspire some people, but I couldn’t imagine I’d find it uplifting. At first sight I thought Black Sheep wasn’t a novella I would admire, especially as I’d previously been disappointed by the author’s Printer’s Devil Court, a confusing supernatural tale that simply made no sense. But I found it doesn’t do to prejudge a fiction before reading it, and unlike the character in this fiction who at the end sat in a field weeping because “he could make no sense” of what was happening I started to get an inkling of what Susan Hill might have been trying to accomplish in this tragic tale.

The extended Howker family are stuck in a way of life that they can’t or won’t get out of. The father and two of the sons accept the hellish life they seem born to, working at the coal face, breathing in coal dust, vaguely conscious that underground explosions can and do happen. A third son disappears without warning, and without trace. In the terrace of houses called Paradise the grandmother is dying, a grandfather reads his Old Testament all day; meanwhile the mother skivvies all the hours she’s awake.

Rose, the only girl, feels friendless most of the time, but still dreams of escaping from the drudgery by marrying above her station. Ted, the youngest brother, tries to make sense of the adult world, and when the time comes rather than joining the men down the mine he wanders further afield and surprises himself by working for a sheep farmer.

Despite one or two hints (swing music on the radio, for example) that we’re in the twentieth century, the author has conjured up a microcosm reminiscent of the visions of John Bunyan and William Blake. Bible texts punctuate the text, pastoral pursuits are held up as more fulfilling than entering Sheol, even the name of the village seems to echo Isaiah’s taunt aimed at the Assyrian king Sennacherib:

For out of Jerusalem shall go forth a remnant, and they that escape out of mount Zion: the zeal of the Lord of hosts shall do this.

2 Kings 19:31

To Rose and Ted the Mount of Zeal village is like a prison, and they long to be the remnant that escape it. But there are walls which are more than metaphorical, from which there is only one exit.

Hill’s writing is spare yet realistic: I didn’t feel she made a wrong step in depicting the period details, the working environment and colliery family lives. I believed in her characters and I think I understood what she was trying to get across: a simmering anger against the inhumanity the industry engendered, a sadness at the closed minds that couldn’t accept those who sought a way out, and a deep sympathy for all who felt trapped for life. This novella started revealing to me the writer who deservedly wins literary awards and began banishing the disappointment I’d had with her 2013 novella.


746books.com and bookishbeck.wordpress.com

Read in November for #NovNov, Novellas in November, though the review is only published now.

8 thoughts on “Walls closing in

  1. Your review has reminded me that when I have read anything by Susan Hill I have admired her style and found her subjects and themes encourage me to think a little more, however I don’t always ‘enjoy’ them if that makes sense. I’m hoping to be able to read one of her books over Christmas.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It does make complete sense, Anne: I couldn’t say I enjoyed this one either but I did find it admirable and powerful. I’ve been meaning for some several years to read her The Magic Apple Tree, a natural history memoir which my partner has on her shelves; maybe I’ll get to it sooner rather than later now.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. elmediat

    Only familiar with The Woman in Black , and The Man in the Picture, so the review presented a very interesting look at the writer’s wider work. I also learned a new use of the word skivvies. I am more acquainted with it referring to underwear and the musical stage group led by Lauren Molina. For a moment, I had quite different image was conjured up by, ” meanwhile the mother skivvies all the hours she’s awake”. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, now that you mention it I too was unaware of the nuances of the word ‘skivvy’. I always knew the singular noun referred to a ‘female domestic servant’ — and the verb ‘to skivvy’ from that of course — but the ultimate etymology of the word is unknown according to my go-to online source: https://www.etymonline.com/word/skivvies#etymonline_v_23625. I wonder if the undergarment term (common I see in Australia as well as North America) is possibly related to hot sweaty work that those workers may have had to do in certain climates, requiring more scanty apparel. More possibilities are discussed here: https://linguistlist.org/issues/11/11-1819/

      As for Susan Hill, I’m now encouraged to pick up another title by here, though perhaps I’m being snobby in avoiding The Woman in Black for now?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. elmediat

        The scanty clad domestic fits the French Maid trope, “everyone ought to have a Maid”.

        I found both of Hill’s ghost stories fit the M.R James model very well.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I saved this review, Chris, intuiting that it would be something I’d be sorry to miss. I am proved right! I’ve not read anything by Susan Hill but this speaks to me. (I won’t think about what that says about me!) This certainly sounds like a book worth reading.

    Liked by 1 person

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