By Susan Hill
Black Sheep is a brief novel that squeezes the faint light hopes of a family into the black coal of a Welsh mining village setting.
The book spans two decades in two principal parts. Soot-covered men work in the bowels of the earth, their vitality drained and lungs crushed. Women work with soapsuds, bake and care. People go missing. Child abuse, domestic abuse, lengthy illnesses, redemption; Hill portrays the asphyxiating atmosphere in plain language and with sensitivity so that you don’t suffocate.
The tale centres on the Howker family, a typical pit family with the women keeping the household and the men working.
Susan Hill uses, brother and sister, Ted and Rose Howker, to portray the hardships, hopes and tragedy of life in a coal mining area.
The 16-year-old Rose offers some respite to the drudgery with her optimistic, youthful take on life. Hers is a world where change may be possible, where the Lord and his morals might not break your back as the mine does, where things can get better if you can steer clear of the mine.
Her brother Ted is haunted by the thought of going down the pit. He finds means to escape by working as a farmhand in the mountains above. You gulp down the lighter air with him as he finds beauty in life above ground.
Yet disaster is never more than a half step away for people living in these precarious and impoverished towns. The second part of the book is crushing; you’ll need to cry to wash away the soot that drifts up from the description of the pit disaster.
Rose chooses a poor marriage, and the moral weight of the village crushes her. Ted, in trying to help his family, is the victim of his own rage and misfortune. The weakest link in the story is his premise for returning home. It just didn’t quite hang properly, but that is a minor point.
Black Sheep was a recommendation from my Welsh mum, whose granddad was a miner and whose family lived in mining towns. I’ve never read a Susan Hill book before and what she successfully manages is to evoke the time and make the audience read on.
Hill’s writing style in Black Hill is restrained yet evocative. She doesn’t intentionally try to upset you; events described do that. You are invited to draw your own emotion from sparse passages.
Black Hill is 144 pages in length – its brevity is a sign of a writer confident in her storytelling craft. It reminded me of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad in how its dense emotions make it feel like a longer book.