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Posted: May 24, 2020

Susan Hill is an author I will continue to read

Book Review

By Derryll White

Hill, Susan (2008).  The Vows of Silence.

One of the customers at Lotus Books said to me “You read a lot and you like the mystery genre. If you haven’t read Susan Hill, you should.” Well, I hadn’t and when I found her in English in Sweden, with time to read after a day of walking and exploring, I thought, “What the hack. Pay attention to the customers. They read a lot.” So I picked up ‘The Betrayal of Trust’ and ‘The Vows of Silence,’ both from her Detective Simon Serrailler series.

This novel starts out with a situation I am familiar with and interested in. Grown children are counselling their parents about how to live. Boy, I am familiar with that and I have, actually but gradually I must say, learned to listen. Not so much that I don’t go for solitary far rambles in foreign countries, but I do hear their concerns. In this particular case the daughter is encouraging the mom to try a dating agency, and the mom is scandalized. Been there! People meeting people – the consequences, oh my god!

This work has many haunting references to memory. Hill looks at how memory works, how it tugs and pulls as it changes through time. She is strong on the loss of those close to somebody, tracking changes in love from surprise, warmth and maturity to bereavement and grief.  I like the way she handles the emotions of memory as they ring strongly in me – are in fact part of why I am hiking through Sweden. Susan Hill’s very perceptive when writing about grand things that we experience but think little enough of – life, belief, death, religion.

The author pushes hard against what we take for granted. She has a doctor character who is so thrown by a serious diagnosis of her husband that she becomes any one of us, unable to translate the diagnosis into understandable reality. She has a woman whose son becomes a fundamentalist, an alien to everything the family understands and holds true.

Susan Hill is very careful. She pushes, probes, holds everyday life up to scrutiny but is careful not to place values on her perceptions. I like her thoughtful analysis very much and she makes me think deep thoughts – all inside a Simon Serrailler crime novel.

At one point, writing about home care and death, Hill’s evocative words brought me to tears. I recommend her highly and thank Lotus Books’ discriminating customers for the tip.  I will continue to read this author.

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Excerpts from the novel:

PLACE: He remembered breaking into a luxury Docklands penthouse, accompanying the brother of a missing man, and the dreadful wave that had all but hit him in the face, the vivid sensation of pent-up violence and evil.  They had both felt it, looked at one another and hesitated to go in.

RENEWAL: He had walked into the pub to meet Helen Creedy hoping to have a friendly drink and to find a companion for the theatre from time to time.  Helen Creedy.  He had seen her and known, in a way he had never known anything since Sheila, that she would be important.   Would change his life. Would….

LOVE: What was love?  He had loved Sheila.  Of course he had, though love had changed every year, as love did.  Early love.  Surprised love.  Warm love.  Protective.  Married.  Parent.  Everyday.  Companionable.  Happy.  Frightened.  Anguished.  Desolate.  Bereaved love.  Grief.

CHILDREN: “Dad’s got a girlfriend,” Simon said.

She opened her eyes.  “Ah.”

“Is that all you can bloody say?”

“Er …. I could do ‘Good’, if you prefer.”

“How can you possibly say that?”

“Good.  There, said it again.  Take that look off your face.  Good.  Good.  Good.  If Dad has got someone to be with, good.  Why shouldn’t he have?”

FOOD: Lamb chops, carrots, peas, fried up mashed potatoes from the day before.  Banana.  Apple.  Four squares of chocolate.  Two mugs of tea.  He liked his food.  He ate well.  Always cooked.  You were what you put into yourself.  Too much putting in of junk – that’s what did it for them.  Did for their brains and their behaviour and their attitude and their bellies.

MEDICINE: “You know, when patients used to tell me they couldn’t take in what I’d just told them, I didn’t really know what they meant.  But I sat there this afternoon listening to the neurosurgeon explain everything and he was talking Greek.  I couldn’t understand it.  It didn’t go in.  When I came out of the room I stood in the corridor and repeated what he’d said to me.  ‘You’re husband has a grade-three astrocytoma, I have removed what I could.  That will relieve the pressure for a time and we’ll give him ten days of radiotherapy.  It will buy him time.  But this is only palliative, you understand.’  I actually said all that to myself aloud.  A couple of people went by me and…”

RELIGION: “I’m an atheist.  I cannot understand how anyone of intelligence believes in God.  It baffles me.  I also think religion is dangerous.  A force for ill.  And if you’re a Scientologist we’ll have to agree not to mention Thetans, that’s all.”

FUNDAMENTAL: “Is that something they’re keen on then?  Chastity?”

“No sex before marriage.”

“Same difference.  Goodness.”

“What?”

“Oh, just – goodness.  Not very fashionable.”

“No, fashionable is promiscuity, fashionable is casual sex, fashionable is gay, fashionable is at the root of social breakdown.  The Bible says –.”

CAREGIVING: A patient who was nursing her mother at home said to me, “I’m way beyond tired.”  And this will get worse.  It’s like lying down while someone rains blows on you but somehow each blow hurts in a different way.

KNOWLEDGE OF SELF: “I need to sort myself out.”

“And have you?”

“Not altogether.  But I think I am slowly working my way towards it – whatever it may be.  I thought it was going to be the abbey.  I really did want to make that work, but I knew straight away that it wouldn’t.  I knew when I lay in bed in my room there on the first night.  I struggled on for six months and I’m glad I did.”

CANCER: “What would you blame for Karin’s death?  That she refused orthodox treatment?”

“Cancer is what I blame for her death, Jane.  It is what I will blame for Chris’s.  But the longer I’m in medicine, the more goes on one line that reads as follows: ‘You get it, or you don’t.  You get better, or you don’t.’”

MARRIAGE: Then you would have to have either a very remarkable wife or a very unusual marriage or probably both.  It wouldn’t change all at once, but in the end it would have to.  Marriage is a new life and it’s always a compromise…. you just have to make sure that you both want the same compromise.

“Yes.  So perhaps I need to forget it.”

– Derryll White once wrote books but now chooses to read and write about them.  When not reading he writes history for the web at www.basininstitute.org.


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