Tag Archives: English countryside

Too Much Left in the Mist

MistThe gothic tale The Mist in the Mirror by Susan Hill, author of The Woman is Black, starts out promising but leaves the reader stranded. It is the tale of an Englishman, Sir James Monmouth, who has travelled the globe in the footsteps of his hero–an adventurer named Conrad Vane.  The author trots out the usual satisfying tropes of the genre–the barren English countryside, the haunted boys’ school, the gilded manor house at Christmastide–which is richly described and a satisfying backdrop as Monmouth journeys to uncover the truth about Vane.  Along the way, he encounters a ghostlike boy, crying in the night, disappearing doorways, a gypsy woman and misty images in the mirror–not to mention everyone he meets tells him to abandon his pursuit, but will not say why.  After all the 200 plus pages of build-up, Sir James finally uncovers an aged relative living in the ancestral home, which has some connection with Vane.  But despite all the warnings, the ghosts, the mysterious hallucinations, author Susan Hill just ends the story without much of an explanation for any of them (don’t want to spoil it for readers).  Hill certainly has the voice down perfectly for this genre and ability to transport the reader back to another time, but the plot was weak and inconsistent.

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Music Saves Souls

La'sOrchestraAlexander McCall Smith’s story “La’s Orchestra Saves the World” is a departure from his usual much-enjoyed series, but still maintains elements of his quiet observations of life in the mouths of his unique and lovable characters.  This story, told from the viewpoint of a young widow during World War II, examines the human condition in the English countryside, as young men go off to war and don’t return, rationing and food scarcities bring out the best or the worse in neighbors, and everyone is just struggling to find their balance in a country which has suddenly been threatened with extinction.  La, the main character, is an educated woman who has always felt marginalized in life, first by a husband who refused to let her hold a  job and then by the War Department, being given only small tasks to help with the war effort.  Her sense of being a “handmaiden” in life, of always watching from the sidelines and not being truly involved, is also played out in her relationship with a handsome Polish flyer, who is taken in by his English counterparts and given sanctuary during the war.  Despite La’s intense feelings for the man, she does nothing to act upon them and turns away from opportunities when presented.  La’s world in the Suffolk countryside tending the chickens and forever doing battle against the marauding fox is a small mirror of the greater world outside, fighting for its life against the threat from Germany.  The descriptions of the small town, the people becoming suspicious of one another in one instance, and going to great lengths to help in others, is a microcosm of the human condition at large.  A.M. Smith as always does a beautiful job in portraying the day-to-day minutia of life, capturing the divine in the smallest task.  The story’s strength is in the first two parts; in the third, at the very end, the author tends to get very preachy and it feels as if we have left La’s thoughts and are reading his directly.  His message in the end–a condemnation of the horror that would result from a nuclear war–is well taken, but feels ham-fisted, rushed, and forced in comparison with the the gentle, subtle prose of the fist part of the story.   orchestra


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