Monday, September 02, 2013

the last book I read

A Kind Man by Susan Hill.

Tommy Carr is the kind man of the novel's title. And a good thing too, because times are hard. What times those are is never explicitly stated, but we're in some sort of poverty-stricken working-class community, probably in the first half of the 20th century. You'd stereotypically assume we were oop North somewhere as well, but no one is rendered as talking with an outrageous accent, so it's hard to tell.

None of that stuff is particularly important, though, as the story is not concerned with the broad sweep of historical events; far from it. Tommy and Eve Gooch (no relation) meet, fall in love, marry, set up house together and have a child, Jeannie Eliza. Times are still hard, and Eve's time is taken up with caring for her daughter and helping out her sister Miriam who is saddled with both an idle and periodically unemployed husband and galloping fertility that keeps her popping out sons that want feeding and cleaning. On the upside, Tommy has a job that brings some money in, and they both adore their daughter.

So having set Eve and Tommy up as honest-to-goodness salt-of-the-earth types, it's time to heap flipping great wodges of misfortune and misery on their heads. Firstly Jeannie Eliza catches a mysterious fever and dies. Then, still consumed by grief, Tommy suffers some dramatic weight loss and then a series of growths in his abdomen and throat. The doctor concludes that he is riddled with cancer, that no treatment is possible, and sends him home to spend his remaining days with his family.

But just as Tommy is sinking into his final coma, and Eve is being desperately summoned back by the neighbours from Miriam's house, where she's been helping out with the kids, Tommy feels a great heat course through him and suddenly his pain is gone. And not only is he cured, seemingly miraculously, but he seems to have acquired the ability to cure others as well, through the transference of the same heat that has apparently cured him.

Once word gets around Tommy becomes something of a local celebrity, and people come from far away to get his hands laid on them. Some of them offer money, which he is reluctant to take, but times are hard, and eventually after curing a rich man's daughter and mother of various ailments he accepts some money for his trouble, and is instantly rewarded by having his powers taken away from him and having the cancer return with a vengeance.

So what are we to make of this? Has Tommy really been granted strange mystical healing powers, or is it all a bit of mass hysteria? And what of his recovery from the great massive tumorous lumps that were about to kill him? If it was the work of one of the pantheon of supposed gods, it's a pretty fickle, capricious and unreasonable god to re-apply the death sentence as soon as Tommy succumbs to the temptation of accepting a bit of money to make his family a bit more comfortable, although of course fickle, capricious and borderline psychopathic are qualities pretty closely associated with any of the supposed gods that humans have worshipped over the years.

The lurch into implausibility (a bit like the levitation business in The 27th Kingdom) aside, this is beautifully written, and barely long enough to qualify as a novel (185 pages, big print, lots of whitespace). What it's for is another matter - a meditation on kindness and goodness? a lament for the inscrutability of divine purpose? a black satire about grief and mass hysteria? Probably not the latter I would imagine, as the supernatural bits are played fairly straight, and Hill has known form as both a religionist and a writer of fiction depicting the supernatural.

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