The title was enough to make me think... Black Sheep... mindful as I am of sheep and wool since my trip to Orkney, though I read the book before I went. The genetic throwback in the flock, the single black sheep, devalued because its wool cannot be dyed... what you see is what you get, and, like it or not, what you are stuck with, and this is not a bad analogy to make with Susan Hill's latest protagonist, Ted Howker, in her new novella published this week.
These are building up into a treasured collection of books. I was blown away by The Beacon, loved The Small Hand and The Man in the Picture and though I wavered with uncertainty over A Kind Man I plan to re-read it now that I am no longer immersed in the professional world of loss and bereavement. I suspect I was just 'up to my eyes' and will reappraise favourably. I am also two Simon Serraillers behind so I have some catching up to do, and I can't believe it is four years since Susan Hill sat in the dovegreyreader asks...armchair and answered a few questions.
As always with Susan Hill the scene-setting in Black Sheep is superb. It is wash day in the mining village of Mount of Zeal, steam and suds and hard labour for the women whilst the men are down the pit, and immediately I was plunged into the Biblical territory that Susan Hill mentioned in her radio interview on BBC Radio 4's Front Row earlier this week. Mount of Zeal rises through its Lower and Middle terraces to the heights of Paradise at the top, and whilst the assumption might be that these are the Welsh mining villages that Laura Ashley knew so well, like so many of Susan Hill's novellas, the exact time and location are indeterminate. It doesn't matter because the themes of toil and hardship spun around those of family love and loyalties, and all woven together with conflict and tragedy, seemed universal, I somehow knew exactly where I was and when.
Dorothy Ward's painting of 1930's washday in Tavistock bears little resemblance to a mining village either I am sure... but we need some cheer and a bit of billowing sheet, and I love it so any excuse, here it is...
These are the communities offering few choices for those who lived there, they travelled little beyond the boundaries, but cared for each other to the very death as best they could given what they had to work with. The book is replete with moments and phrases of great depth; prose that stopped me in my tracks and made me look on the scene a little longer and with a clearer vision, as when Rose stares at her ageing aunt taking in her 'flaking baldness' and her 'flat,discoloured eyes'....
'...and although of course she had known in her head that Etta had once been young and without these defects, the 94-year-old and youth had still been unimaginable partners...'
or when Evie sits at her mother-in-law's bedside and confronts the older woman's concealed but obvious illness...
'..the swelling was the size of an apricot, pushing against the skin... She put her hand on the other woman's arm and rested it there, and so they stood, both silent, as if they were staring into the depths of the same river but from opposite banks.'
And this should all be sufficient to tell you that we are deep into what I consider to be Susan Hill's specialist territory here, because in Black Sheep you will be reading the most relentless and grittiest story of them all... and trust me, it gets much tougher. When the glimmers of sunshine do come, they are pale and watery in comparison to the grief, and as Grandfather sits in his chair providing a background chorus of Bible reading, those verses seemed to underpin and lay rock-solid foundations to the very essence of the book. Susan Hill suggested in her radio interview that you don't need to believe to appreciate the sheer majesty of Biblical prose, and it most certainly adds something here that resounded and chimed with my own memories of a childhood of Sunday School and Church-going. It is indeed a language and a tradition that is fast dimming.
This all resonated powerfully too with my recent read of Anne Sebba's biography of Laura Ashley, and her accounts of the young Laura Mountney's visits home to Station Terrace at Dowlais Top in the 1930s. The matriarchal mining households with their relentless round of cleaning and scrubbing for the women, Laura's Uncle John sitting at the table reading his Bible, the Devil a 'real force in the daily battle against the world's many evil temptations,'
' For Laura, the Welsh atmosphere began as soon as she stepped off the train and saw the bright, white sheets billowing on the wire lines stretched across the mountain side. For although the Victorian era had been over for thirty years, Laura believed that the ideals of cheerfulness and industry, loyalty and obedience were enshrined for ever in that perfect past she never knew but constantly sought to recreate.'
Susan Hill rejects any notion of nostalgia, no floaty frocks in Mount of Zeal, though there is a trunk of linen treasures that Laura Ashley would have recognised and probably scoped for design ideas. Confronting head-on the realities of this life, my suggestion would be that Black Sheep (with one of the most shocking and uncompromising endings that I have ever read...and that is saying something) could go two ways for any reader. If you are feeling a bit glum this will either put the lid on it completely, or you will realise there is always someone much worse off and cheer up immeasurably. Expect to read those final pages with your eyes half-closed because Susan Hill doesn't flinch from her purpose, and then expect to be haunted by that final moment for days to come most certainly ...probably years.
I'll let you know.
Meanwhile, if this sounds too dour and depressing for you, and if like me you sat there in your Laura Ashley smock reading one of those defining books of the 1980s, Susan Hill's The Magic Apple Tree, and you would prefer to read of rural warmth and nice things cooking on the range, then check it out on Kindle for just £1.54 at the moment...
"The Magic Apple Tree stands in the garden of Moon Cottage, in the small village of Barley. Susan Hill's book is an evocation of a year seen from that cottage, in which she and her family lived for thirteen years.
Here are the changing seasons, the sounds and smells and sights of the country, the weather and the wildlife, the growing of vegetables and the keeping of hens, the making of preserves and the establishing of a new garden in the overgrown orchard.
Here too are the people going about their everyday life in a small country community. There are the pleasures of Christmas and Easter and Harvest Festival, the village show and the summer fete, the spring fair and the Women's Institute meetings. There is life and death, pleasure and survival, heavy snow and blazing summer heat.
The Magic Apple Tree was first published in 1982 and has become a classic of English country writing and the favourite, much-loved bedside book of so many. This edition retains John Lawrence's evocative and true-to-life wood engravings, exactly as in the first edition."