A Heart Rending Tale Of Friendship In Wartime That Deserves A Place On The Shelf Beside The Great Books Of Wartime Literature The Trenches Of The Western Front Are The Setting For This Story Of The Extraordinary Devotion That Develops Between Silent, Morose John Hillard, Full Of War S Futility, And His As Yet Unscathed Trench Mate, David Barton The Lyrical Beauty Of Hill S Narrative Draws The Reader In And Doesn T Let Go This Little Novel Is A Gem, Compelling And Moving, A Treat For All Readers Of Fiction This sad and haunting tale of the deep friendship which evolves between two officers serving in the trenches during WW1 is so well written, and has such sensitivity, that it couldn t fail to be moving.Of the two men, one is already emotionally scarred by his experiences, but the other is as yet untouched by this dreadful war, and has yet to discover what it meant to serve on the front line.I ve read many books about this conflict, but I felt this was a personal look at how men tried to deal with the unspeakable horrors they had to confront, and yet stay sane. I don t think this is a very well known or celebrated book, but with the exception of Barker s Regeneration Trilogy, I can t think of another World War I story that has moved me as deeply While in many ways a subtle novel, missing a lot of the overblown, overwrought movie moments found in other war novels, it seamlessly captures the agony and ugliness of a war that devoured a whole generation of young men It in no way glorifies the war, and presents it as what it is unadulterated, irrational horror, snuffing out promising lives without either meaning or grace The beauty of the book is instead found in the rare, meaningful friendship that forms between two young soldiers in one tiny corner of the war It s the kind of extraordinary, intrinsic friendship that even a lucky person might find only once in life, and the author rendered it and both wonderful characters brilliantly This is a quiet, painful, utterly beautiful book, and than once it reminded me of a poem by A E Housman Like this novel, it s simpler and restrained than a lot of the famous war poems, and like this novel, I find it to be incredibly moving and true Here dead we lie Because we did not choose To live and shame the land From which we sprung Life, to be sure, Is nothing much to lose, But young men think it is, And we were young. A deeply moving, and beautifully written story set during World War 1. Despite the inevitability of their being sad and depressing, I will persist in reading novels about the First World War Maybe I d stop if there wasn t so much well written fiction about the war, and indeed wars in general In this case, Strange Meeting is an account of the relationship between two officers over a relatively short period in training camps and trenches Said relationship is ambiguously homoerotic, but I read it as an intense romantic friendship It was very moving to see the two young men find comfort in each other s company in appalling conditions Their conversations about how to bear the pointless and cruel loss of life all around them were very powerful Perhaps the most notable aspect of their relationship is that they are totally honest with each other for Hillard, the older officer, this is something he has never experienced with another person The two can admit to weakness in each other s company in a way that they cannot to others It is repeatedly noted in the text that there is particular pressure on officers, as they generally lack the supportive bonds of brotherhood that enlisted men have Moreover, they have to enforce orders that they know are stupid, wrong, and will lead to pointless deaths This monologue from Barton to Hilliard will stay with me That Private who was snipered looking at him I could have wept and wept, he seemed to be all the men who had ever been killed, John I remember everything about him, his face, his hair, his hands I remember how pale his eyelashes were and I thought of how alive he d been, how much there had been going on inside him blood pumping round, muscles working, brain saying do this, do that, his eyes looking at me I thought of it all, how he d been born and had a family, I thought of everything that had gone into making him and it wasn t that I was afraid and putting myself in his place down there on the ground I just wanted him alive again, it seemed the only important thing I just wanted to stay there and look at him, I couldn t take it in, that he d been so alive, and then he just lay, spouting out blood and that was that, he was dead, nothing Of course, the especial pain of reading WWI novels is that they never end happily and this one is no exception It s elegantly written and very moving, though I also appreciated the author s afterword Hill comments very straightforwardly that the thing she is most often asked about it is whether the two main characters have a sexual relationship She says she didn t write them with that intention, but if they did it would not change anything about the narrative Moreover, she doesn t see either of them as entirely straight or gay This refreshing response allows the reader to interpret as they prefer As she says, though, it doesn t really matter, as the point is that the two love each other and that helps them cope with the horrors of the trenches Their sense of alienation from normal life clearly intensifies their relationship and it is this sense of estrangement from normality that is captured brilliantly by the narrative Strange Meeting is a miniature masterpiece. Once I knew I was going to write Strange Meeting, it actually fell into place remarkably easily I suppose there are two ways a writer can tackle such a subject One way is to write a very long, panoramic historical novel, attempting to capture the whole sweep of the war But there was no way I could have done that or wanted to I have never been interested in that kind of book, neither as a writer nor as a reader.The alternative was to write a novel of the war in microcosm, to create a small world within the great one of the whole war So the book is really about two young men and their meeting, their relationship, set in a few places, over a few short months in one particular small corner of the Great War So says Susan Hill in the afterword to this novel and it encapsulates the story in a nutshell Because this is essentially the tale of two young men one serious and reserved, the other jolly and outgoing and their unlikely friendship A friendship made possible only by war.The story is set during the First World War, on the war front in France Lieutenant John Hilliard belongs to a family of stiff upper lipped Britishers his only close companion is his elder sister Beth As John is temporarily invalided out of the army due to a leg injury, he finds that he can no longer empathise with them not even his beloved sister The fact that she is going to marry a widower many years her senior, just for security, does nothing for his peace of mind John s sleep what little he can get is beset with nightmares, and he is actually relieved when he has to report back to the front.But his unit has also changed irrevocably in his absence Many of the oldies are either dead or maimed The Commanding Officer, Garret, is disillusioned to the point of despair Men who have been planning to finish the war and go home for Christmas is getting used to the fact they are in for a long haul in the trenches.The only ray of sunshine in this atmosphere of gloom and doom is David Barton, John s roommate A member of large and warm family that is the antithesis of the Hilliard family, Barton goes about spreading cheer He does not have a negative word for anyone or anything Though initially annoyed with this sunniness, Hilliard slowly comes to appreciate his roommate s persona, and what it means for the whole unit Ironically, as the days go by and the war gets dirtier, Barton slowly loses his positivity but by that time, John has been converted He tells his friend that he is the most essential thing in the unit.As the novel slowly proceeds to its inevitable tragic conclusion, John Hilliard realises that he has finally gained a real family through Barton s letters in which he featured prominently a family which his own can never hope to emulate The last sentence of the book says John looked up, and ahead In context, it is a simple statement but if we look beyond the written word, it marks a profound transformation in a man who used to look only within, and backward Strange Meeting is a very simply written novel There are no frills, no flowery metaphors, no colourful phrases like the life of the soldier at the front, it is largely boringly humdrum But as the story proceeds, the transformation from the beauty of the French landscape to the mud and sleet of the trenches in autumn is masterfully done We feel the descent into doom and despair along with the protagonists the last part of the book is rather painful to get through Yet for all its darkness, this a story of light the light of camaraderie and friendship. WWI officer John Hilliard returns to France after spending several months in England recovering from a serious wound He is shocked to find that, of the officers he had previously served with, most are dead or disabled, and those few who are not suffer from severe mental and emotional wounds rage, bitterness, despair, madness He tries to isolate himself emotionally to avoid breaking down, but is brought out of his shell by David Barton, a friendly, warm hearted officer who has not yet seen combat The two quickly become close friends, and John suspects that the feeling between them may be than friendship But as the time approaches for them to go up to the front line, he is terrified that the war will destroy David, either through death or psychological trauma so deep David will never recover.An unusual, memorable war story, neither about honor, courage and patriotic duty nor the senseless slaughter of combat, but about psychological, even spiritual, survival amid death and destruction and how strong bonds between people can help them endure unimaginable horror The author avoids sentimentality with a clear, matter of fact tone and by not shying away from the ugly details of the war or the less pleasant aspects of her characters The relationship between John and David, which is in a gray area between friendship and romantic love, is portrayed sensitively and develops believably despite their very different personalities David helps John, who is aloof and intimidating, learn how to connect with others and John helps David, who has been sheltered by his large, affectionate family, cope with his initial reactions to the carnage of the war. Set in the First World War Beautifully written, it almost reads like a poem, if not exactly Wilfred Owen s poem of the same title Trench horror contrasts with the unreality of life in Blighty experienced by one of the characters in the novel, home on leave so unreal he can t wait to get back to France.The strange meeting is that between two officers, John and David David and Jonathan and the resulting bond between them One of them writes as a poet might Owen It brought the war, its horrors and ironies, home to me in an unforgettable way. I had not read Susan Hill before, but when I ve seen her titles I thought she veered toward ghost stories As I chose to read this because it continues my exploration of WWI, I wasn t sure what to expect from her It was nothing of what might have been and is a fine contribution to the sub genre By the next war, the message will have got through There will never be another war There will always be wars Men couldn t be so stupid, John After all this Isn t the only real purpose of our being here to teach them that lesson how bloody useless and pointless the whole thing is Men are naturally stupid and they do not learn from experience This is but one of the conversations between the two main characters John Hilliard and David Barton One of the things I hear read from men who have participated in war and or any military experience is that they are able to form close relationships despite or because of the stresses inflicted upon them Strange Meeting is the story of such a relationship In this way, it is different from other WWI novels I have read.While reading, I came to finally recognize one of the primary differences between most WWI literature and WWII literature Of course this is a somewhat of a generalization, but WWI literature is usually told from the point of view of the soldier, while WWII literature is told from the viewpoint of the civilian Most of the novels I have encountered have been on the Western Front I feel I have neglected the so many other parts of the world where battles were fought It will probably continue to be so, but I ll try to find a few novels to broaden my horizons. A blurb on the cover of All Quiet on the Western Front calls it The greatest war novel ever written Susan Hill sStrange Meeting makes for the perfect companion novel Not only do both novels describe the horrors of war, they do so by exploring the human bonds made and broken amid the shelling and the gas and the rats in the trenches There are two aspects that stand out in this marvelously short novel The first is the beautiful, opposites attract relationship that develops between Hilliard and Barton Hill masterfully contrasts their personalities Hilliard receives the perfect Harrods gift baskets from his family, while Barton only receives letters overflowing with warmth and sense of family Some readers on this site seem to be unable to move past the but were they gay question I am not sure it would make a difference.The second noteworthy attribute is how the characters evolve in the 178 pages Barton initially plays the role of uplifter, but as the experiences of the war gradually take their toll, it is Hilliard whose emotional intelligence has developed enough for him to take on that job in the friendship.
Susan Hill was born in Scarborough, North Yorkshire in 1942 Her hometown was later referred to in her novel A Change for the Better 1969 and some short stories especially Cockles and Mussels.She attended Scarborough Convent School, where she became interested in theatre and literature Her family left Scarborough in 1958 and moved to Coventry where her father worked in car and aircraft factor
- 182 pages
- Strange Meeting
- Susan Hill
- 22 September 2019 Susan Hill