In the Springtime of the Year opens with the death of Ben Bryce, a young man in his 20's whom we only get to know posthumously but one who has clearly left his imprint on all who knew him. Dying as a result of a freak accident--an apparently healthy tree suddenly falling on him--Ben, as a friend notes, "had been at one with things" (62). The death, happening so unexpectedly and to such a young man of promise, leaves his small rural English community eerily stunned. "People felt changed, as by war or earthquake or fire, even those who lived closest to death and knew its face" (56). As Moony, the same friend, remarks to himself, "it was no ordinary death" (63). Ruth--his young wife--she is 7 or 8 years younger--begins a grieving process that occupies the rest of the novel, beginning with the news of her husband's death in early March until the last page in December.

Although the attention the author pays to Ruth's grief is extraordinarily close, there are other events external to her grief that occupy her and the reader's gaze. Ben's family is equally devastated but hampered in their effort to perform grief work by an egoistically blinkered and unimaginative, selfish mother who has ruined her grown daughter's life, stultified her husband's, and only failed to affect her two sons, Ben and Jo, by dint of their physical and mental exodus, respectively, from the household. Jo, at fourteen (he was exactly half Ben's age at the time of the accident) is precociously generous, supportive of Ruth, and self-sufficient. Indeed, he is the most wise character in the book.

Ruth's attempt to make sense of her husband's tragic death; the usual small town happenings in the village; and Ruth's eventual emergence from her grief, partly as a result of her helping others suffering these small town hardships--all form a tightly knit story that centers around grief, tragedy, and humans' attempt to impose meaning on life's often unfairly dealt hand.


This novel might have been subtitled: A Phenomenology of Grief. Entire pages are devoted to moments of grief. The detail beggars description. [Not surprisingly, one learns that the author's fiancé, David, died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 43 in 1972. "That was the blow from which I never recovered," says Hill. (Reference 1)] Indeed, it is precisely the project of such a work of art as this novel, or Crime and Punishment, or Remembrance of Things Past, to engulf the reader in a world of affect (grief), or cognition (memory), or psychological ruminations (guilt) so extensive that the reader has to look up once in a while to remember what day or year it is, either inside or outside the novel.

Susan Hill's agenda in this novel, one I think she successfully executes, is the phenomenological dissection of the grief a young widow experiences when her husband is inexplicably wrenched from her by a meaningless accident. One thinks of The Body Artist, by Don DeLillo when one reads "In the kitchen, she said, 'I will cook them. The potatoes. I will cook them,' and she had spoken, almost cried the words aloud" (8).

The author spends a great deal of time comparing grief work to pattern-making and pattern recognition: "everything formed a pattern . . . A pattern only she could see. . . . For none of them had been given what had come to her, the understanding of the pattern, completed at four o'clock, with Ben's dying" (27). Later in the book, she understands Ben's death as "necessary": "She no longer blamed anyone, God or life, Ben or chance, the falling tree. It had happened, it had been necessary, the pattern was complete" (79). There is a determinism here that will not sit well with some readers but is worth reading and giving consideration for its acceptance of life's lot. In this respect, Ruth's redemption and resolution of her grief remind one of the aforementioned Crime and Punishment and The Death of Ivan Ilyich (see this database).

A curious notion, that of "the good death" rears its head early in this work. When Ruth visits the site of Ben's death, she realizes that "this was a good place, because Ben had died here and he had been good. Whenever she came here, it could only give her peace, she could not be assailed by any fear, nothing could harm her here. For if a bad death haunted a place with evil, why should not a good death imprint its own goodness?" (43). Moony reflects that "when a man was ready for death, fitted to it, then death did well to take him, before he was altered and soiled by all the evil in this world" (63). There is a little too much casuistic rationalization of Ben's death at times for my likes, but the author, primarily as a result of the sheer tour de force of effectively inserting herself into Ruth's psyche and anatomizing every facet of her grief, has written a primer on profound bereavement and one woman's response to it that is worth reading.

Reference1.,12084,1065267,00.html Accessed April 9, 2004


First published 1974 in Great Britain by Hamish Hamilton Ltd


David R. Godine

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