Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Strange Meeting by Susan Hill


 In 1914, John Hilliard, reticent and aged from his inaugural experiences of the war thus far, is haunted by nightmares whilst on sick leave. Hilliard is disillusioned with those at home for their naive ignorance and detachment from the grim reality of war. Upon returning to France Hilliard meets David Barton, an exuberant new recruit not yet sullied in battle or from the atrocities of war.

Hilliard, previously so reserved and detached, cannot grasp why he is so instinctively drawn to Barton, whose openness and magnanimity is as foreign to him as the backdrop of the French battlefields. The bond between the two men soon deepens into an ambiguous love - one which Hilliard cannot articulate even to himself - and one which is perpetually in threat of being destroyed through separation in death, with the prospect of being killed in battle ever present.


What resonated with me most throughout my reading of Strange Meeting was the stillness to the narrative, imbuing the novel with a sense of poignancy - the futility of war when looked at against the backdrop of senseless death. Susan Hill doesn't engage the reader in elaborate battle scenes, nor does she concern her story with the minutiae of war. Instead the narrative is focused on its trivialities (in comparison to bloodshed and political manoeuvrings) - which are therefore mundane, such as that felt by Hilliard in the 'rest periods' of soldiers on leave. 

Deaths in Strange Meeting are by nature accidental and trivial. No one passes in a blaze of glory, no harrowing scenes of bloodshed and no closure. This serves to permeate the narrative with a numbness and begs the question - what is the point? Hill brilliantly turns traditional historical fiction towards the psychological impact of war - the isolation felt by Hilliard when he is back 'home' (not to mention the irony that home has become the battlefield with his fellow men), or the brilliance of Barton's gregariousness cruelly stolen by war and replaced with an almost tragic numbness.

Of course the crux of Strange Meeting is the relationship between Hilliard and Barton. An ambiguous love or at least a deeply strong mutual attachment, develops out of an unconscious need from each man. Hilliard, already aware of and succumbed to the atrocities and futility of war is in dire need of hope - a reason to continue, an emblem to prove that their endeavours are worth it. Barton is this emblem, shiny and new without the taint of battle. On the other hand Barton is naive and artless in the ways of war. Hilliard, for all his experience and wisdom provides the grounding and guidance Barton will need.

Strange Meeting never makes the relationship explicit - to either Hilliard and Barton or the reader. Whether it will be physically realised lingers silently at points, though Hill is careful not to steer the reader towards this presumption. Instead the relationship is innocent and undergoes a role reversal, with both Hilliard and Barton becoming what the other was to him. Barton, upon losing his brilliance through experience, becomes world weary and dejected to the dismay of the now rejuvenated Hilliard. 

Strange Meeting is a poignant tale of deep rooted friendship in WW1, with a rich narrative focused on the triviality of loss.

1 comment:

  1. I know this is an old review, but this sounds very intriguing!