Book Review: The Small Hand by Susan Hill

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Susan Hill has been writing gothic novels and ghost stories for almost 50 years, the most famous of which is probably The Woman in Black. Given my interest in gothic literature and literary ghost stories it is odd that I haven’t actually read any of her novels before, and odder still that I have started with The Small Hand, a more recent and comparatively slighter novel, closer to a novella.

This is a remarkably straightforward story following an antiquarian book dealer, Adam Snow, who takes a wrong turn, finds an abandoned garden, and feels the titular small hand take his own. From there events get increasingly darker and more dangerous. Hill builds the tension slowly and deliberately, but the plot is so slight that a number of incidents feel more like padding. On a number of occasions, Snow is distracted by his business or by his brother’s family and forgets about the ghost for months at a time. This has the effect of deflating the tension at periodic intervals. The pacing is, therefore, slightly uneven, but Hill is clearly well practiced in the art of tension and mystery. By the end I was suitably intrigued and desperate to find out what was happening. Not all the mysteries are resolved and outside of Adam Snow, the characters are underdeveloped.

The Small Hand feels like a short story that has been stretched into novella. Susan Hill is an obviously practiced hand who delivers a good old-fashioned ghost story in the tradition of M.R. James, but this is too slender to be one of her better efforts. I am, however, impressed enough to tackle some of her earlier works.

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