Black Sheep by Susan Hill

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Black Sheep by Susan Hill

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A powerfully evocative snippet of high drama from the very controlled pen of Ms Hill.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 144 Date: November 2014
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099539568

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Mount of Zeal is a mining village, and no mistake. Three concentric semi-circular streets align across the side of a hill, like the rows of seats in an amphitheatre, with little thought at all allowed for the life above the crest of the hill, and a lot of effort and dreams focused on the coal mine at the village's core. The Howker family (and how evocative that name is, so akin to the noise of hawking coal dust from one's lungs), and Ted and Rose, the youngest of the clan, in particular, will face the destiny the environment they grow up in gives them – with only the merest glimmers of hope and the faintest of sparks to latch on to as regards a likeable future. But if that is a faint spark, then how safe is it so close to the tinderbox of a coal mine?

You may well come to this book knowing several (or at least one) of Susan Hill's prior short successes, and expect the same here – a gripping horror tale with shadows of inevitability reaching from an object or location to a narrator who is then stuck on the path of their fate. Well, here the book is gripping, and it is a tale fully about said shadows of inevitability, and it does contain a horrible situation. But there the similarities end. While the book is designed to point out the fate of the entire town this is not one instance of horror, but a whole society's being haunted by their circumstance, by the rarefied world in which they live and the chances they give each other to escape their fates.

In a very nicely drawn way, the village is one of the characters – stuck in its bowl so all people either look to the pit or to the featureless, smut- and rain-filled skies above; people collectively go to weekend dances, or uniformly open and shut their doors to passing people and events. However different everyone's shift at the pit is people are stuck in very similar ruts. And you don't have to take your characters too far towards the edges of those ruts for the whole cart to weave and threaten to break, as indeed happens here.

Notable for being so evocative while never trying to state directly where or when we are, the book wraps us in a dark and grey blanket, which sits uncomfortably as we see the oppressive environment the town is in, and that the town itself is. Neither do the characters make anything easier for themselves – one tries to defy medical nature, another simply sits and recites the book of Job all his live-long. The book has to succeed in being careful and measured in showing us these extreme characters in such common ways, to make them feel so human and close to us, so that we care for them and again see how just a little remove from the commonality of the town is going to lead to consequences. In lesser hands the fact so much happens to one family would make the book a soapy affair; never here do we have such reason to turn away from the intricate inevitability of the main story.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

For a further read of dark family goings-on in a rural village in the middle of England with a similar mood, you cannot really beat Blackmoor by Edward Hogan. As I write the most recent Susan Hill hardback is here.

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