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Anyone who has ever experienced the loss of a loved one will know how utterly devastating it can be: destroying lives, reducing seemingly solid people to shadows of their former selves and driving invisible but powerful wedges between friends and family, forcing them apart.
This is exactly the sort of pain which In the Springtime of the Year deals with. Ruth, a 19 year-old newly married woman is widowed when her husband is killed in an accident. Devastated by her loss she finds that the only way she can cope is to retreat into memories, slowly cutting herself off from the outside world.
In the Springtime of the Year contains some very clever writing on a very difficult subject. By its very nature, grief is a highly personal matter and so conveying its emotional intensity in a way which is meaningful to anyone is no mean feat. Author Susan Hill has shown in the past that she has a way with words and sums up the grieving process superbly. Ruth goes through all the recognisable stages: anger, denial, misery etc., rooting the book firmly against a backdrop of human experience. Framing the book against the different seasons of the year (hence the title), it cleverly contrasts these different stages of grief with the changing temperature and environment of spring, winter, autumn and summer. This could have come across as slightly cheap and tawdry, a cynical narrative device contrasting the gloom of winter with the despair of grief. In fact, it works very well thanks to some superior writing from Hill.
The real concern about In the Springtime of the Year is that the characters are just so hard to like. With one exception (the book's youngest character), they are selfish, thoughtless, self-centred and deeply uncaring. Ignorant of the need to support each other, they plough a lone furrow, wallowing in misery and self-pity and hurting (deliberately or accidentally) people who are going through their own grieving process. At a time when families should be pulling together, this one is drifting apart, letting old hatreds, rivalries and grudges rise to the fore. Certainly, this is one aspect of grief which can be so crippling; but by focussing so intently on the negative aspects of grief, it ignores the many acts of kindness and supportive deeds that people are capable of at such times.
This makes it very difficult to identify or sympathise with anyone in the book. As already noted, grief is that it is a very personal experience and everyone reacts to it in a different way: for some it can even have a positive aspect, reaffirming their own desire for life and to make the most of every moment. In the Springtime of the Year is having none of this diversity - almost without exception its characters react in exactly the same way, cutting themselves off and withdrawing from the world and only rarely does Hill allow anyone a glimmer of hope or respite.
As a result In the Springtime of the Year is often not an easy read and there were times when I wished I had never picked the book up. It's certainly not something to read if you are already feeling down as (one or two small episodes aside), it is unremittingly bleak. Wallowing in the grief and self-pity of other people - even fictional ones - is not a particularly pleasant experience. There were times when I just wanted to shake each of the characters and tell them to grow up; that they were not the first or last people to experience grief of this nature.
There's also no doubting that the book is very slow-paced. Although over 250 pages long, virtually nothing happens during that time other than the everyday routine stuff that people normally do. For most people, reading is a form of escapism, a way of getting away from the drudgery of their daily lives, so to sit and read about someone else's boring life and misery might not be an ideal way to unwind!
As a final aside, the ending also seemed a little too neat. Events in the book come full circle and it struck me as the sort of ending that only really occurs in the mind of an author, rarely in real life.
Although In the Springtime of the Year certainly contained some excellent, evocative and emotionally raw writing, I struggled to like it. Its bleak tone, selfish characters and uneventful nature are its strength and its weakness. A stunningly vivid portrayal of grief, it is also rather challenging to read.
In the Springtime of the Year
Long Barn Books, 2006
© Copyright SWSt 2011