This is a story of bereavement and its painful aftermath. Ruth, a young wife living in a rural English community, loses her husband suddenly. Based on Hill’s own experience of grieving for a man she loved in her youth, this is a raw and moving examination of the physical and emotional effects of loss. Ruth’s senses are heightened and her appetite vanishes – food is like dust in her mouth.
‘She ate at odd times, in the middle of the morning, or late at night, bit of fruit and cheese or raw vegetables, and the last side of baked ham, never sitting down, with knife and fork and plate, just wandering about the empty house and garden.’
Hill creates a sense of emptiness and loss which is incredibly powerful, and which feels very honest. When told that her late husband’s family want everyone to walk to the church together for the funeral, Ruth thinks,
‘She did not want to be with any of them. She resented the people’s grief, and knew how keen it would be, for everyone had loved Ben, everyone would feel the loss. But she wanted to be the only one who mourned him, the only one who was bereft.’
Ben’s family are sunk in their own grief and it is only the company of the adolescent Jo, the wonderfully comforting presence in Hill’s story, that Ruth is able to bear. She recognises that her grip on the world around her is fragile and there is a sense that she is lost.
The novel unfolds at a slow pace, taking the change of seasons as its guide, leaving the reader with a sense of days of loss stretching ahead. As the novel progresses, Ruth seeks answers, looks for patterns in her experience of the world around her, in order to make sense of Ben’s death, and the novel, whilst bleak, does offer glimpses of survival, of hope. There is a good deal of beauty in Hill’s descriptions and Ruth briefly gains a sense of reprieve:
‘The sun woke her, it filled the room and was bright on her face and arms, stretched above her head, and when she went to the window, she saw a shimmering blue sky and the last of the raindrops like baubles of glass on the hedge. Aconites and snowdrops were clustered here and there. She had an overwhelming desire to get away from here, to slough off all the days and nights of weeping and the memories of death.’
In the afterword, Hill describes the writing of the novel: The end of the book marked the beginning of the healing process, although it was a dreadfully slow business, and I came out of it a changed person.’ I have enjoyed many of Hill’s novels but this is unlike anything else I have read and, as such, it has had the greatest impact on me. She has captured an experience which is both deeply personal and something we will all inevitably experience at some point. It reminded me that, apart from anything else, literature can console and comfort.