As an English student, I’ve always found it somewhat embarrassing that, in general, I really dislike war literature. I can appreciate the poetry for its merit but not for its meaning; most of the novels I’ve encountered have been regimented and dull, regaling every small detail of a setting that I could never seem to respond emotionally to. It was a bit of a shock for everyone (and me the most), therefore, when I picked up Strange Meeting by Susan Hill on recommendation of my English teacher, and had finished and cried substantially over it by the end of that week.
As Hill herself says in her afterword, she didn’t want to write a novel encompassing the whole atmosphere of World War I. As a female writer producing a war novel in the 1970s, this was primarily because she had no experience of such a climate, and secondly because, like I, she found expansive accounts of WWI to be drab and dry. What resulted from this was Strange Meeting, depicting a so-called ‘microcosm’ of the war in vast emotional depth.
The novel is structured in three parts, the first taking place at the soldiers’ training camp, the second in the trenches, and the majority of the third in battle. Our main character, John Hilliard, is a worn and cynical soldier returning to the front line having spent an uncomfortable period of time recovering from a shrapnel wound to the upper thigh. Hill presents her main character’s interactions and thoughts fluidly, with his bitterness rising continuously to the surface of her prose, ‘This was how he went on, he felt himself changing daily, felt himself to be old, twenty, thirty, fifty years older than when he had gone out in April.’ I was shocked at how dynamically Hill could conjure the stuffy claustrophobia of a soldier’s struggle to adapt to home life while on leave and, for a revisionist writer producing a novel decades after the war, how immediately I could connect to Hilliard’s life and emotions – in comparison with many of-the-time war writers I’ve tried.
Hilliard is lonely and strained, neither secure at his upper-class country home nor completely at ease in the comradeship offered by his fellow soldiers – that is, until he meets young, cheerful and open David Barton, a new recruit with no prior experiences of life in the war. What made Strange Meeting so emotionally compelling (and soul-destroying) was the way Hill writes about Barton’s nature and actions: her imagery is so vibrant and immersive that Barton’s optimism and charisma infects the reader with the same kind of elation that Hilliard feels upon finally meeting a soldier that wants to listen to and share his ideas with.
Above all, Strange Meeting is not a novel about war, but one about friendship, support and human love. For the most part, our characters don’t engage in fighting. Instead, we learn of their experiences of the war through torturously long weeks of waiting in the trenches, their one-to-one conversations, and their letters back home. Strange Meeting is also a novel with very few notable characters – instead, it centres almost entirely on Hilliard and Barton’s intimate and rare rapport. It is the kind of friendship that crackles from the page and, if you’re as cynical as I am, makes your stomach begin to churn with uneasiness from the very first pages. Because, of course, a WWI novel would not be complete without the portrayal of how battle destroys such love and happiness. Barton’s radiance and naivete immediately throw vast foreshadowing over his later fate and, in this sense, Strange Meeting is highly predictable. But that is the very point: war is as repetitive as it is brutal, taking young man after young man needlessly from life into death as our story wears on; Susan Hill’s remarkably sparse yet fine-tuned prose ensures that every word stabs you like a knife in the gut. However, Barton isn’t a character who is walking to his demise from Chapter 1; just like John Hilliard, readers of Strange Meeting will appreciate him for his hope, enthusiasm, and readiness to forge a friendship with a traumatised and lonely soldier. I came away from this novel feeling exhausted for several days, with the conversations of the characters still ringing in my head – yet, just as the final lines of the book suggest, my prevailing feeling turned slowly from fatigue to that of liberation and hope.
Words by Megan Harding