Book 117: The Bird of Night – Susan Hill

I searched out this novel after reading Howard’s End is on the Landing and thoroughly enjoying Hill’s writing style. And after finishing The Bird of Night I’m even more convinced of her amazing writing style and ability, it’s no wonder the novel appeared on the Man-Booker shortlist in 1972 and won a Whitbread Novel Award (now called Costa Book Awards), and it’s definitely no surprise I found it stirring. I will definitely have to check out more of her work.

The Bird of Night is a story of love and madness. The narrator of the story, Harvey, looks back on his life and his time spent with Francis, the poet, and Francis’ rise to fame and coinciding decent into madness. There’s no way I can even begin to grasp everything in this compact novel, but I can definitely appreciate the beauty of the language and the intensity of the story. The quote below sort-of sums up the novel, or at least what I got out of the novel.

“And if he is mad, it is because one man’s brain cannot contain all the emotions and ideas and visions that are filling his without sometimes weakening and breaking down. But he will be perfectly well again, he is generally well. When he is not he is in despair and when he is fit he dreads the return of his illness. What can that be like to live with?” (149)

As usual I’m only going to focus on a few specific points in this response to the novel. The first being Hill’s language. I have rarely read an author whose descriptive capabilities are a match to Hill’s. There is something beautiful, and yet somewhat cruel, in her language. There were passages I wanted to highlight, but at the same time to remove them from the weave of her story would, I think, have ruined them. And although there is A LOT of description it’s not overwhelming or dry like many writers (mostly male) I’ve read.

The second point that nagged at me the entire book was the relationship between Harvey and Francis. Clearly this is because of my perspective as a gay man, but I couldn’t tell if Harvey and Francis were lovers or friends. If they were lovers was it a platonic love? If they were friends, was there a reason they weren’t lovers? The novel’s setting could be a reason this is unclear, it could also be Hill wrote the novel in the late 60s/early 70s, but it could also be Hill didn’t want to define their relationship and wanted to leave it up to the reader to decide.

I’ll just say there were no women interests mentioned in the novel for either Francis or Harvey and there is a scene with Francis’ father and Harvey which the descriptions of Francis’ father’s reactions to Harvey and judgemental looks made me wonder if he was at least thinking they were more than friends. As the story is told from Harvey’s point of view I’ve decided he was definitely in love with Francis (and he does acknowledge it), but I’m still not sure if it was more than brotherly and platonic.

What I found most interesting is when I went to look at the description on Wikipedia I found the following quote by Susan Hill about The Bird of Night,

“A novel of mine was shortlisted for the Booker and won the Whitbread Prize for Fiction. It was a book I have never rated. I don’t think it works, though there are a few good things in it. I don’t believe in the characters or the story.”

This really threw me for a loop – I thought it was beautifully written and believed in the characters (I didn’t like their wealth and ability to live on it, even though it was explained so it’s not just an unwritten guarantee), but for the author to say this it really made me wonder if I’d read/interpreted it wrong.

Recommendation: Take it or leave it. I thought it was a beautifully written novel, but could see how a lot of people might not be interested in it. If you’re a writer you should read it for her writing skills; if you’re a reader you will definitely enjoy her writing ability and her way with words.

Opening Line: “Once during a summer we spent at Kerneham, Francis locked himself in the church for the whole of a night.”

Closing Line: “Now I have finished. I have kept my promise. There are no papers.” (Whited out.)


7 thoughts on “Book 117: The Bird of Night – Susan Hill”

  1. I only started reading her last year as you know, but I would rate Susan Hill as one of my favourite authors and with a handle on the written word I can only aspire to.

    I would suggest that she likes to leave things to the readers imagination, a bit like the women in ‘The Woman in Black’ – was she real or wasn’t she? Interestingly this latter book is on the high school curriculum in England and she is critical of that, saying the book is too easy (not demanding enough).

    Regarding the comment you read on Wikipedia, I take it to mean that she believes she has improved throughout her career so something she wrote 30 years ago could appear flawed when she looks at it today. But that wouldn’t stop me from reading it – thanks for a great review, definitely on my list now!


    1. I could definitely see her views changing about the book. For some reason it just raised a flag because I thought it was so beautifully written. If she thinks she’s writing better now I will definitely have to check out more of her work!


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