Black Sheep, the latest of Susan Hill’s novels to hit the bookshelves, recounts the hardships and tragedies of the Howker clan, a typical coal-mining family eking out an existence in a village called Mount of Zeal.
Life follows a gruelling routine. The men, John and his three eldest sons, Clive, Jimmy and the slightly odd Arthur, work long shifts in the pits; the women, John’s wife, Evie, and their teenage daughter, Rose, toil with household duties and with caring for John’s parents, cancer-stricken Alice and Reuben, a one-time pitman who’d become obsessed with the Bible after claiming to have seen the devil down the mines. Into this hectic mix runs Ted, the youngest, a wild, thoughtful boy who quickly decides that his future lies above ground rather than below.
The prose is plain and unspectacular throughout, and some of the characters feel less than fully developed, with a few barely rising above names on a page. The plot, too, has an air of melodrama. Yet despite all of these apparent negatives, the result is utterly captivating. This is one of those novels that draws its readers in and shackles their attention until nothing else exists beyond the book’s covers.
The real story lies with the family’s two youngest members, Rose and Ted, both of whom are wonderfully and vividly realised. Rose, against her family’s wishes, marries Charlie Minns, a mining manager’s son and a good-for-little type with the privileged attitude of a slightly higher class.
It is a decision she quickly regrets, not least because of his propensity for physical abuse. And then she meets Lem Roker, a hulking pitman new to the village, and compromises everything, the least of which being her family’s good name.
Ted, upon leaving school, refuses a job at the mine, is all but disowned, and climbs the overlooking hill to find work labouring on a sheep farm. The work is hard but he is happy, until a massive explosion rocks the area, the first of the novel’s two main climaxes, one that sets in motion a devastating series of events.
In a literary career spanning more than 50 years, Susan Hill has proven herself not only a masterful storyteller with an immaculate sense of narrative and pacing, but also a writer possessed of a deep understanding of human nature.
Black Sheep raises important questions with regard to class, generational differences, family constraints, loyalty and notions of justice.
If it falls short of the author’s finest work, such as I’m the King of the Castle, The Beacon and The Woman in Black, then for all its flaws it still stands as a very good and compulsively readable short novel.