Posts Tagged ‘strange meeting’

‘Most of it comes about just like that.’  Hilliard snapped his fingers.  He thought of the deaths and injuries he had seen, not in battle but caused by the single, random bullet, by a careless accident, by sheer bad luck.  One shell coming out of nowhere, through the blue sky of a May morning, singing down into a corner of a trench where Higgins was frying bacon and talking to a couple of men from Glazier’s platoon.  All killed.  Then nothing more that day, only the warm sunshine and the ordinary jobs.  Sergeant Carson had had his arms blown off demonstrating a new type of hand grenade at the Training Camp.  So many pointless, messy, inglorious deaths, ‘just like that.’  He resented them more than anything.

(from Strange Meeting, page 71 in the hardcover version, for which I could not find a cover image)

Strange Meeting is a novel set during World War I that was originally published in 1971, and if it hadn’t been for the Literature and War Readalong hosted by Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, I would have missed out on a fantastic war novel.  Susan Hill’s writing is beautiful, with undertones of darkness and despair that push the horrors and the senselessness of war to the forefront.

Hill tells the story of John Hilliard, a British lieutenant, who readers first meet as he prepares to go back to the front after being wounded.  He spends some time in England with his family, but after all he has seen, he is plagued by nightmares, cannot stand to be at home, and feels a need to go back to the war.  Upon his return to France, he learns that many of his friends and fellow soldiers have been lost on the battlefield, and he meets a junior officer, David Barton, who has yet to see any action.  Barton’s optimism and happiness seem out of place in the midst of war, but his presence at the rest camp, his charm, his incessant chat about his family, and his practice of writing and sharing long letters to and from his family lift the men’s spirits.

Hilliard and Barton strike up a close friendship, with Barton becoming the listening ear Hilliard so desperately needs.  Hilliard’s family is cold and distant, but Barton’s is warm and loving and accepts Hilliard without having met him, reaching out to him through letters.  Barton’s influence on Hilliard is striking, and Hilliard’s feelings for Barton are so strong that he wants so very much to protect Barton from the death and destruction he will experience first-hand in the trenches.

The swiftness and strength of their friendship is understandable given the pressures of the war and the close quarters of the trenches, and because they are polar opposites, it is easy to see how they are good for each other.  Hill writes with a fondness and tenderness for these characters, and her portrayal of two men who love one another (not romantically…at least I didn’t take it that way) feels authentic under the circumstances.  She shows men who are both brave and scared and who turn to one another so that they do not feel alone in such a dark moment in their lives.

While much of the story centers on Hilliard’s and Barton’s friendship, it is a war story, and in the build up to a major battle, the men have some deep discussions about war, death, guilt, and all that goes along with seeing countless men fall to an unseen enemy.  One of the most interesting passages comes from a letter written by Barton to his family about the impact of war on the environment.

It is so easy to destroy landscape, it takes a couple of days of really bad fighting and strafing, plus this rain, to turn what was beautiful (in spite of the war and everything littered about) into the most frightful scarred waste.  I feel we shall have this on our consciences every bit as much as the deaths of men.  What right have we to do such damage to the earth?  After all, you may say that man can do what he likes with himself but he should not involve the innocent natural world.  John disagrees, he says that a tree grows again and grass covers the craters in no time, but a man is dead, is dead, is dead.  (page 184)

Strange Meeting is a slow-moving but beautifully written novel that takes readers into the trenches, lets them feel the tension and the damp and the intense noise of shells and guns.  Hill shows both the beauty of war in Barton’s romanticizing of battle and the reality of the killing with Hilliard’s voice of experience.  While much of the story is told from Hilliard’s point of view, Hill merges the viewpoints of both men seamlessly — the two opposites coming together in friendship, touching their lives in ways that could never be forgotten.  Although somewhat predictable, Strange Meeting is a moving story about youth and experience, despair and hope, and friendship and love.

Disclosure: I borrowed Strange Meeting from my local library. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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