Dolly by Susan Hill

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Dolly by Susan Hill

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Category: Horror
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A particularly bright and breezy spooky tale, but one that may well have the power to outstay its slight-seeming length.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: October 2012
Publisher: Profile Books
ISBN: 9781846685743

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An empty house in the remote fenlands of England, with a man returning to it alone… a lawyer sorting out an inheritance… something buried yet still yielding power… Susan Hill's name, and the subtitle 'a ghost story' on the cover… We do seem to be in the territory of The Woman in Black, but worry not – this new short genre novel is a very different beast.

Some time just after World War II and the house in the fens is home to four people – the bizarrely named Kestrel Dickinson, her housekeeper, and her niece and nephew. He, Edward, is a very meek boy – quiet, reserved, and possibly too well-mannered for his own good. She, Leonora, is a flame-haired, conceited young madam, who has inherited the same good fortune, wilful attitude and beauty as her mother. He is here as a semi-permanent resident, being an orphan, she here to keep him company and because her mother's globe-trotting, man-swapping lifestyle is a bit too much. Also a bit too much are some very unusual occurrences, ending in the said burial of something that will… well… it's not a case so much of 'that would be telling' but 'well, you decide'.

Call it a ghost story if you like, but the designation is one quite at kilter with what we have here, in very intriguing ways. The first large body of the book, the flashback to the childhoods spent that summer in the home on the fens, is just too bright and sunny – storms, and housekeeper regardless – to be a ghost story. Bagatelle is played on the lawns, lemonade at hand – this is not a thing to spook. But wait until the nights fall, the storm clouds roll in, and the odd begins to accumulate. This ghost is nothing more than a resonance, a malevolent kind of inheritance, and when it manifests itself we see the horror it could inflict on people, but we are left with an ambivalent feeling, especially as the how, why and wherefore are just never begun to be explained.

This could be called, then, a 'tale of the unexpected', if that were not to recall too strongly to mind a series of short TV movies from long, long ago. Looking back on this you could say the story could be filmed at just such a length, but I think the details, richness of character of the two youngsters, and the slow build to the revelations of the ghost's consequences deserve longer. They also deserve a long time in the mind – this takes just a couple of hours to read, in common with all of Susan Hill's ghost stories, but it could well last for a much greater duration. I think with such brevity things needed perhaps to be more of a piece – the story branches out to more distant geographical realms and covers unexpected time spans wherein things get too handily forgotten – to make it an unbounded success. But the fact this tale goes a great length beyond what was expected of its self-declared genre, with such curious results, is only to be recommended.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

Another supernatural tale from this author we recommend is The Man in the Picture. For more fiction set deep in the fens, there is This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You by Jon McGregor. You might also enjoy Black Sheep by Susan Hill.

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