Thursday, February 01, 2007
Not written as a children’s book, STRANGE MEETING nonetheless appears in The Ultimate Teen Book Guide (Edited by Daniel Hahn and Leonie Flynn, the follow up to the equally good Ultimate Book Guide for 8-12s) and so perhaps qualifies to be discussed here. I wanted to talk about it, firstly because I think it’s a very good book, the sort of book that stays with you, lodged somewhere in the mind forever. But also for the more simple-minded reason that in my last book log entry I happened to mention Susan Hill’s author blog.
This book has at its heart an intense friendship, the sort of all-encompassing bond that occurs most commonly when you’re young. In this instance, the intensity is ratcheted up considerably by the fact that the two young men concerned are junior officers in a British army battalion on the Western Front in 1916. It could be argued that junior officers had the worst job of any soldier in the trenches. They were required to keep the soldiers in their charge on task, leading patrols into No Man’s Land, repairing the trench system and so on. They had to lead from the front at all times and would have to watch their men die before their eyes. And yet they had no power to influence the tactics and decisions made by their superiors back behind the lines.
STRANGE MEETING follows John Hilliard as he returns from convalescence to a much altered battalion. And there he meets one of the newcomers, David Barton. Summer comes and, while the two men bond, the calendar starts to turn down the days through May and June, heading towards the fatal date of July 1st. This was the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, when more British soldiers were killed than on any other day before or since. This story reveals the individual human lives, the hearts and the minds that were doomed to be wasted away in the chalky mud of the Somme valley.
The title is borrowed from Wilfred Owen’s poem of the same name. Owen’s verses exert a power distinct from some of his other realism-soaked works, because the subject is an unsettling wartime dream. In Owen’s poem, the narrator meets the shade of a man he killed. They are united, at last, in the peace of oblivion. But in Susan Hill’s book the strangeness of the meeting is that, although it ends in heart-wrenching tragedy, the story is also somehow filled with a distinctly positive charge. It concludes, not in endless sleep, but in the possibility, at least, of an awakening of sorts for one of the main characters sometime in the future.
My last entry, in which I mused on the lack of comment this blog attracts, has, in fact, attracted a comment! Most gratifying. For all that I enjoy a bit of silence, it's possible to have too much of a good thing. Of course, I will be delighted if more people visit this site. I can claim little credit for its excellent user qualities however. That is down to its creator, my friend and former fellow guitarist in The Rare Bones, Mr Leeroy Lugg. His approach to web design is just as I'd imagine a zen master craftsman's to be, as he goes about carving a block of cherry wood into, say, a stand for bamboo ink brushes.
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