Review: Strange Meeting by Susan Hill

John Hilliard, a young subaltern returning to the Western Front after a brief period of sick leave back in England, finds his battalion tragically altered. His commanding officer finds escape in alcohol, there is a new adjutant and even Hilliard’s batman has been killed. But there is David Barton. As yet untouched and unsullied by war, radiating charm and common sense, forever writing long letters to his family. Theirs is a strange meeting and a strange relationship: the coming together of opposites in the summer lull before the inevitable storm.

Review by Erastes

I steeled myself for a non-happy ending–having recently read Pat Barker’s wonderful trilogy–and I wasn’t disappointed.  I’m saying this upfront, because there’s no point beating about the bush.  If you enjoyed Barker’s work, then you’ll certainly enjoy this little book.  It’s hardly more than a novella, really, but packs a beautiful punch.

I admit I was put off a little when I first cracked the book open and started to read, because it is clearly aiming at the literary market–nothing wrong with that, but sometimes I just want a story, not flashbacking back and forth and endless descriptions of the smell of roses and the look of the mist.  However, once I settled into her style it wasn’t difficult to keep up with and I found myself quite enjoying it, even if I had to re-read the first section about three times because I kept forgetting where I was.

Hilliard is the main protagonist here, raised in a middle-class family with pretentions higher than they have.  He has a chip on his shoulder, its clear, although about quite what I never managed to work out.  His family are almost entirely distant, thinking that things and money and education can take the place of affection, and it’s only Beth, Hilliard’s sister, that has ever–from Hilliard’s POV (because I didn’t exactly warm to him) shown him anything like the love and protection he thinks he needs.  He says, for example that he only felt safe under his sister’s bed.  Perhaps there was a reason for that, perhaps I need to re-read. Perhaps I missed something coded.

However this was written in 1989, so if there was code there, it really shouldn’t have been.

He’s invalided out of the war temporarily, after six or so months at the front, and finds his life at home unbearable, and actually longs to get back to the front, perhaps because there is life there in the death, he seems to find England more dead than France.  When he encounters Barton, I was actually forcibly reminded of the fanfic relationship between Hornblower and Archie, and if this had been written a little more recently, I would have actually suspected it of being a converted fanfic, because the dynamic is very similar.  Barton has a huge family and extended family, who, through Barton’s letters, soon accept Hilliard as an extension of their son and include him in their letters and gifts.  Hilliard’s own family write sparingly, and send hampers from Fortnums and Masons, with ridiculous treats like candied figs and caviar.

The author says in her author’s note at the end of the book that she is constantly asked if Hilliard and Barton’s relationship was homosexual and was it consummated, and really, I don’t think it matters in this novel.  In the situations that she has the two men in, it’s pretty unlikely it was, although I don’t doubt that there was a true homosexual love between the two men, which makes the ending hard to bear, even if it’s not quite the punch in the stomach that Pat Barker delivers.

If you liked The Charioteer and The Barker trilogy then I highly recommend this, but don’t go expecting anything at all romantic, in any sense of the word.

Author’s website

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4 Responses

  1. Good review. (By which I mean I agree with all of it!)

    I enjoyed Strange Meeting (I’m so thick I only realised two days ago where the title comes from) but, like you, felt a lot of things were left either unanswered or begged questions. I’d love to know why Hilliard is as he is (like I want to know more about Rivers in the Barker books – is it really just that picture on the stairs which has spooked him?)

    *mwah*

    Charlie

  2. Great to read a review of one of the most beautiful books I have ever read!

    I think one of its greatest narrative successes is its subdued description of the war itself, often leaving it up to the reader to imagine the scenes of horror that its characters witness, by observing the main characters’ reactions to it all. Although, as you say, there are lengthy descriptions of the scenery, especially at the beginning.
    But above all, it is its story of human love that really captures me. I find the fact that Susan Hill has achieved portraying a realistic and believable loving relationship, without describing any sort of physical contact, admirable, and it functions well in this book. Also, a lot seem go on on ‘beyond the pages’.
    The dynamic between Hilliard and Barton is great, their different personalities fitting well together, with Hilliard being cool, sometimes almost immune to the horrible surroundings that they are placed in, while Barton is much more sensitive and feels too much. Through their differences, they are able to help one another; Hilliard helping Barton come to terms with war and Barton teaching Hilliard how to feel, and because of the long build up of their personalities, it feels very realistic.

    Sorry for rambling on, I do hope it is all right that this has turned out to be such a long comment, but this is a book I feel deeply for. And it is, at least for me, always great reading other people’s opinions/reviews, seeing that different readers often have differing experiences with the same book, so I wanted to share some of my own thoughts.

    I do feel compelled, though, to inform that it was written in 1971, not 1989. The times one writes in always influences the work, at least to some point, so yes – I just wanted to point out the correct year.

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