Review published on October 25, 2012. Reviewed by Sue Appleby
But Hill’s writing sets out its stall from the off, and you know before you are even a few pages into the preface what you can expect.
I first read Susan Hill when I came across her wonderful non-fiction account of a year in her country life, The Magic Apple Tree. Many years later, I stumbled upon – and devoured – her Simon Serailler crime novels, where she skilfully mixes whodunnit with a family back story, and a hero who suggests James Bond crossed with Mr Darcy. Clearly she is a writer who can adapt her style to many settings, but always held together with a compelling narrative.
Surprisingly, I had never been tempted to pick up Hill’s The Woman in Black ( nor see the play or the film). Perhaps I had no appetite for a spine-chiller ? I wasn’t quite sure how engaged I would be by her latest offering.
The answer was, enormously. Her talent for telling a strong tale pulls you in from the beginning, and though there are some flaws in this novel, it’s a page-turner you won’t want to put down.
Sir James Monmouth has been a gentleman adventurer, exploring the globe in the footsteps of his hero, a pioneering traveller called Conrad Vane. Orphaned at the age of five, and raised by a nameless guardian, Sir James returns to London from his wanderings, intent on finding out more about his family, and to investigate the early years of Conrad Vane.
But at every step, Sir James is warned off ( including by the proverbial old gypsy woman ), while at the same time he experiences feelings of being watched, and flashes of fear. Doubling his anxiety is the appearance of a mysterious sobbing boy. And of course the eponymous mirror, reflecting back unpleasant images.
As in all good ghost stories, there are rooms which disappear, lights which extinguish themselves, and plenty of things which go bump in the night. When Sir James pays a visit to Conrad Vane’s old school, where he stays in search of information, his night time wanderings lead him into an allegedly locked library, and an encounter with a mysterious figure carrying a lantern. Where you and I would have run for the hills, or at least back under the covers, Sir James is made of sterner stuff, and follows through, eventually learning of the death at the school of a young lad who bears his own surname, and that Mr Vane was perhaps not the upstanding figure he had projected, but in fact a bit of a bounder , and a dabbler in the occult to boot.
Eventually, via a series of unusual encounters and coincidences, our hero is led to the old lady of Kittiscar Hall, deep in the snowy Yorkshire hills, and to the uncovering of terrible secrets. Which of course I can’t possibly reveal, for fear of spoiling your enjoyment.
One puzzler is the time when this is set, for we are never given an exact date. Hill conjures up images of a grey and foggy London, a place where beggars and n’eer-do-wells roam the streets, where hot mutton pies are delivered to your plate, where lodgings are cheap, and servants plentiful. I began by believing we were in Edwardian England, then moved on to post WWI. But when Sir James is met from the train by his host’s chauffeur-driven Bentley, I’m guessing we are in the 1920s. Does it matter? Probably not, but there was a slight sense that the book had been originally crafted for one era, then time-shifted to another.
It was also originally published in 1993, so is this re-issue an attempt to hop on the bandwagon of The Woman in Black. Perhaps, but don’t let that stop you enjoying a good read.
Happily for me, there is no blood and gore, only wraiths and half-glimpsed figures. I never found myself looking over my shoulder, though I did read it under a Mediterranean sun, rather than in a draughty house, by the light of a candle. I suggest you make your own arrangements before opening the first page.
There are some loose ends in the storytelling, and some points which remain without clarification. But I think this can be forgiven in such a tale, for mystery needs to remain somewhat clouded, like the mirror of the title.