A Kind Man, by Susan Hill, Chatto & Windus, RRP£10.99, 185 pages
When 20-year-old Eve Gooch considers a proposal from her first suitor, she asks herself a question she once heard her mother ask an old friend years before: “Is he a kind man?”. Kindness may appear to be the modest Tommy Carr’s only memorable quality, but so begins the marriage at the centre of Susan Hill’s latest short novel.
The setting of Hill’s story is indeterminate, a device she has used in The Beacon and elsewhere; it is recognisable only as a manufacturing town in the inter-war depression era. Eve and Tommy’s home lies on the boundary of industry and countryside, with nature’s resources offering a buffer against the material and, arguably, spiritual poverty of urban life.
The book opens at a moment whose significance is initially shrouded in Hill’s trademark veil of mystery. It emerges that the day marks the death anniversary of the couple’s long-awaited and only child, Jeannie Eliza. Interspersed with Eve’s annual rituals, the narrative recounts the domestic contentment of their early marriage up to their sudden loss.
Few writers wield the power of the unspoken as deftly as Hill. The couple’s subdued grief is expressed only to the reader, barely mentioned in dialogue until it manifests itself in Tommy’s life-threatening cancer. Then, at the point of death, he experiences a miraculous recovery. Even more bewildering to himself, his wife and his community, the “kind man” has also been given the power to heal others.
As word spreads through the depression-embattled town and beyond, Tommy’s abilities cast him into a claustrophobic spotlight that distances him from his friends and co-workers.
He finds himself bombarded with pleas for help from the sick and dying, eyed with doubt and suspicion by the townsfolk, and resented by the lone figure of authority, the threatened town doctor.
Susan Hill’s spare prose is the perfect expression for these sensitively understated characters. Their reluctance to explain their actions allows readers the satisfaction of using our powers of deduction even when her tale is not one of mystery. However, alongside her skilled economy she crafts beautifully succinct imagery which, given the subject, can even be read as biblical.
Hill’s fans will not be surprised that the source of Tommy’s recovery and healing power, along with the reasons for the tale’s closing events, are hinted at but ultimately left open beyond the last page.