Monday, 14 January 2019

Guest review by Bridget Collins: THE MIST IN THE MIRROR by Susan Hill




Bridget Collins trained as an actor at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art after reading English at King's College, Cambridge. She is the author of seven acclaimed books for young adults and has had two plays produced, one at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She has just published her first adult novel, The Binding. 

To readers of her best-selling The Woman in Black, Susan Hill’s The Mist in the Mirror appears to be exploring familiar territory. Like The Woman in Black, it is a ghost story, set in a vaguely Victorian world of urchins, moonlight and old libraries, in which an isolated narrator encounters strange noises and mysterious doors before finally coming face-to-face with evil itself. It has the same Dickensian resonance, the same rather lovely prose to describe skies and sounds and places. And, like The Woman in Black, it can be read as a straightforwardly spine-chilling yarn, a book not to linger over too late at night. But there is something frustrating and elusive about The Mist in the Mirror, a deeper current which refuses to grant the reader the simple pleasures of terror and resolution. When I first read it I was (like many other readers, apparently) irritated by the book’s recurring pattern of delay and anti-climax; now, coming back to it, it strikes me as intriguing and complex, a subtle reworking of a well-known formula.

James Monmouth is a traveller, orphaned at an early age, who has finally returned to London, intending to settle down and write a book about his hero, the explorer Conrad Vane. He has few, if any, memories of his life before his parents died; rootless and friendless, he is determined to make a new life in an England that is essentially a foreign country. But although he remembers nothing, he is dogged by sinister and unpredictable flashes of emotion that seem to allude to his childhood without illuminating it; he has a sense that his own past is waiting for him, just out of reach, behind a beaded curtain or a fog in the mirror … As he searches for traces of Conrad Vane – dissuaded again and again by people who refuse to elaborate on their warnings – he realises that his life and Vane’s are somehow intertwined. Slowly, following chance clues and dropped hints, he works his way towards the heart of the mystery, which is also his cursed family seat and its inhabitant, the last person who might be able to tell him who he is.

So far, so good. But what sets this book apart from the traditional ghost stories it mimics is that the promised revelations never come: it is all spooky build-up, all atmosphere and unease. Hill excels, of course, at the evocation of fear – the creeping dread of being pursued, the sheer horror of the world disobeying the laws of reality ... But as Monmouth is led onwards, the answers he seeks seem to withdraw ahead of him, keeping their distance. Characters repeatedly come close to an explanation, but shy away from anything clearer than heavy intimations that Monmouth is in danger; over and over again there are scenes that seem to offer at least a step towards greater understanding, only for them to fall short. Characters choose not to elaborate, or don’t remember, or die before they can speak plainly. The book’s final denouement is certainly dramatic and terrible: and yet there is a sense of something missing. We understand a little more of what has haunted him than we did, but not enough; his own memories remain beyond his grasp, lost forever. And most gallingly of all, Monmouth – and, accordingly, the reader – will never know why.

Let’s face it, this is infuriating. If we read The Mist in the Mirror as an uncomplicated ghost story, it disappoints. We’re accustomed to expect a final, neat, comprehensible climax, and there is something perverse – unfair, even – about Hill’s reluctance to provide it. And yet, on second reading, there is something evocative about the lack of closure. Ghost stories are always metaphorical, no matter how simple they appear at first glance: the genre itself engages with the awful power of the past, and its disconcerting habit of refusing to stay put. The dead are not dead; our memories are not merely memories. But The Mist in the Mirror goes a step further than this. Monmouth, in searching for himself, risks his own identity and gains nothing. Not only does the past hold a terrible sway over him, it is unknowable, locked away, capricious. To me, the book expands the metaphor of the ghost story into something richer, and reflects another aspect of our relationship to the past: we’re afraid of its potency, but we yearn for it. We know that sometimes it seems close enough to touch: but finally, heart-breakingly, it’s always on the other side of the glass.

The Mist in the Mirror is published by Vintage.

Monday, 7 January 2019

Guest review by Gwen Grant: WHAT LOVE COMES TO, new and selected poems by Ruth Stone



Gwen Grant: I have been writing and publishing since 1968, the majority of my work for children but also publishing poetry. Private - Keep Out, which first came out in 1978, is to be re-issued in March 2019 by Penguin Vintage Children's Classics. 

The American poet Ruth Stone writes poems that shine with clarity, understanding and beauty, poems that I absolutely love and admire for their finely balanced, rhythmic elegance. Stone is witty, wise and, at times, funny, but she can also be a very tricky customer, for she has this great gift of being able to change course mid-poem, so that what seems all set for plain and simple will, quietly, unexpectedly, lead into much darker waters. It’s like being mugged by a feather. You don’t know it’s happened until you re-read a poem and find something new in it that you somehow missed before. Every Stone poem is a journey into a new understanding for she is a force of nature, a poet in possession of her world and ours.

In Second-Hand Coat, she begins with two words then in the following twelve short lines, turns this poem about an old coat into a surreal story of how, once it is taken home, it begins to talk, asking solicitously if its new owner has everything they need before leaving the house, the distinct impression being that it is speaking in the voice of the woman who once owned it. Alchemy of the highest order.

What Love Comes To is made up of new poems and poems selected from earlier books, witty, acerbic, hostile, elegiac, fierce poems, some political, some absorbed by science, some with rough sexual imagery, some deeply sensual and some so tender, you can hear the poet breathing, feel her heart beating.

All Ruth Stone’s poems have such integrity, you trust her to tell it how it is, which is a tall order for a woman who was no stranger to tragedy. Early in their marriage, Stone’s husband, Walter, killed himself, leaving her with three small girls to raise. She has said that all her poems are ‘love poems written to a dead man,’ whose suicide forced her to live in limbo. Yet Stone keeps this compact of honesty between herself and the reader, sparing herself nothing and, therefore, sparing the reader nothing. In Turn Your Eyes Away, so hard to read, so impossible to think of how hard it must have been to write, the Gendarme notifies her of the nature and death of the man she loved.

Each plain and unforgiving line of Turn Your Eyes Away stonily taps into the next line, telling the bleak sorrow of how Walter died. Of what happened when they pushed the door to his room open, of where his dead feet lay, then going on remorselessly to where his tagged body lies in the morgue. Then, almost before there is time to feel sadness for such suffering, Stone whirls around, remembering how they once lay together in a single bed, face to face, breath to breath, not wanting ever to part, that erotic love poem, the Song of Songs, lying open in the hotel’s Gideon Bible.

It is through Ruth Stone’s absolute honesty and unflinching gaze in this poem as in all her poems, that in these last lines, we are able to feel the passion and sexual desire these two had for each other; a love that seems to shatter sorrow, swipe death out of the way and burn up the page with longing.

In The Sperm and the Egg, another mid-course change poem, the egg hates the sperm and then the sperm hates the egg, wanting its tail back because then it was free. Dark waters here, for every reading throws up new thoughts. It is Ruth Stone’s genius that this poem ends with an absolutely apposite quotation from Hamlet. Then the lovely humour of Setting Type, where the semi-colon, the paragraph, the vocabulary and good punctuation get it together.

Finally, from The Widow's Muse, Poem XLII tells how the widow is triumphant having got through thirty years of widowhood, until her muse forces her to smell an old undershirt of Walter’s, which still retains his scent. At this, the widow whimpers with grief whereupon the muse knocks all the sense out of her. Harsh, hard and truthful.

Ruth Stone died in 2011, aged 96.

What Love Comes To is published by Bloodaxe Books.