Black Sheep by Susan Hill

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Paperback review by Simon

Susan Hill is the master (or perhaps that should be mistress) of many genres. She is famous for crime novels, children’s books, and a certain play/film/book/everything called The Woman in Black. One of my very favourite books is her non-fiction work Howards End is on the Landing. But another line which garners perhaps less attention, though should be better known, is one of finely crafted, moving little novellas. Black Sheep is the latest, published in 2013 and now out in paperback.

If Black Sheep looks familiar, it’s because it’s being marketed in quite a similar way to previous titles The Beacon and A Kind Man, both of which are excellent. Well, not only does the cover have similar colours/image/format to those other two books (albeit a stormier image than the hardback edition), but it also – whether Hill has done this deliberately or not – belongs in the same stable. The three novellas have definite differences, and possibly started from very different inspirations, but they also share a great deal – all three concern remote, almost isolated communities, the complicated lives of simple folk, and (it must be conceded) a fair dose of misery. Or perhaps just a dose of hardship, because the three novels all seem to come near to gratuitous misery, and then duck away.

Black Sheep takes place in a mining community in the past… I’m not sure how far in the past, or if we’re even told, but definitely an era when people rarely left their village and almost no outside-communication took place. The village (called ‘Mount of Zeal’) is divided into the pit, Lower Terrace, Middle Terrace, and Upper Terrace (known as Paradise). We follow the fortunes of one overcrowded family home as the children grow up. Who to marry, whether or not to get a job in the mine, how to cope with illness and grief – these are the overriding concerns of the different children and their parents – but these topics are less important than the way in which Hill writes about them, and the community they live in.

It is such a brilliant depiction of a village. Setting the community on the side of this hill, leading from Paradise to the hell of the mine, may seem like a heavy-handed metaphor – but more significant is the claustrophobia of the village from any vantage, whether in the pit or in the fanciest inspector’s house.

In one of the most vivid sequences, we follow perhaps the most important character, the youngest boy Ted, when he emerges from the village into the sheep-filled fields above – a journey seldom made by anybody, for some reason – and there is a palpable sense of narrative and readerly relief. Even while giving us characters we care about, Hill makes the whole atmosphere suffocating and, yes, claustrophobic.

The cast of characters is certainly led by Ted. The others are individuals, but perhaps part of their drudgery is that we cannot see too deeply into their souls or minds. They live in this community, as have the generations before them, and must bear the burden of its monotonies and routines. Even falling in love, marriage, child-bearing, and old age are not vitally unique experiences; they are stepping stones in the endless history of this isolated place.

Of these three novellas, I still think The Beacon is the best, and the most cleverly structured – but the setting of Black Sheep is probably the most accomplished. Yes, there is an almost Hardyesque piling on of unlikely misery, but that can’t really dent the confident narrative achievement readers have come to expect from Hill. The reader is drawn through the emotional wringer as they are pulled from beginning to end, but even a short journey through the Mount of Zeal cannot leave the reader untouched. Sharing these plausible lives of melancholy, told through a intelligently simple style that allows the plot to bear the weight of the emotional upheaval, is not a breezy or light-hearted experience – but it is a memorable and affecting one.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors.

Susan Hill, Black Sheep (London, Vintage, 2014), ISBN 978-0099539568, paperback, 144pp.

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