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Black Sheep

by Susan Hill

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433493,209 (3.89)2
The village is called Mount of Zeal. It's built in a bowl like an amphitheatre, with the winding gear where the stage would be. The pit lies below. Ted Howker's school is on the edge of Lower Terrace next to the chapel. Upper Terrace - in a thunderous echo of the Bible so loved by Ted's grandfather - is Paradise. Ted and his father and his brothers live in Middle. In the beginning: a household of men, all of whom work in the pit...Susan Hill is an exceptional writer at the height of her powers. Every word is precisely right: the descriptions of the village and the pit, the people and the farm are exact and true; the heartbreak is inevitable yet new; and the imagery and imagination take your breath away.… (more)
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Susan Hill is possibly best known for her unsettling supernatural tales squarely in the tradition of the “English ghost story”, stronger on suggestion than on gore. Her series of crime novels featuring Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler also rely hugely on setting and description for their effect. Black Sheep is a very different work – a miniature “family saga” set in a fictional mining village. However, Hill’s skills at building a haunting atmosphere are equally evident. Her style is deceptively simple, and yet it evokes Thomas Hardy in its bleak fatalism and D.H. Lawrence in its portrait of a community simultaneously shaped and crushed by the mining industry.

One of the more intriguing characters in the novella is Reuben, the grandfather in the Howker family, who spends the day quoting fire-and-brimstone passages from his black-covered Bible. Perhaps therein lies one of the keys to appreciating this book. Indeed, for all its gritty realism, the novella often reads like a Biblical parable or allegory. The village where it is set is named “Mount of Zeal” and is described as a series of concentric terraces leading down to the mining pits at its heart. In an interview with the Guardian, Hill claimed to have been inspired by a 19th century engraving showing just such a village. However, given that the upper terraces are named “Paradise”, it does not take much imagination to recall Dante’s circles of hell. The date of the events described are also left vague, though there are suggestions that Hill might have the early 20th century in mind – this lends the book a timeless quality. And the characters seem quite set in their ways, coming across as symbolic figures in a latter-day morality play.

Whatever you think about the book, there’s certainly no questioning Susan Hill’s versatility. ( )
  JosephCamilleri | Jan 1, 2022 |
This book stayed with me for a while and made deciding which book to read next, very difficult. The lives of pit folk is never easy but this is such a tragic story! I don't feel I can say anymore without giving away some part of the story. You need to read this slim book yourself. The writing is brilliant, made me feel as if I was watching rather than reading! As I write this my mind goes back to Mount of Zeal and the life endured by those who make up the village. ( )
  Fliss88 | Nov 17, 2018 |
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For Penelope Hoare
Best of Editors for half a lifetime.
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On Mondays, the village, which was called Mount of Zeal, smelled of washing as well as of coal dust.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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The village is called Mount of Zeal. It's built in a bowl like an amphitheatre, with the winding gear where the stage would be. The pit lies below. Ted Howker's school is on the edge of Lower Terrace next to the chapel. Upper Terrace - in a thunderous echo of the Bible so loved by Ted's grandfather - is Paradise. Ted and his father and his brothers live in Middle. In the beginning: a household of men, all of whom work in the pit...Susan Hill is an exceptional writer at the height of her powers. Every word is precisely right: the descriptions of the village and the pit, the people and the farm are exact and true; the heartbreak is inevitable yet new; and the imagery and imagination take your breath away.

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