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First published in 1971, ‘Strange Meeting’, which takes its title from a poem of the name by war poet Wilfred Owen, is a novel about relationships during the Great War. As Susan Hill says in an Afterword, written for publication in the 1989 reprint, it is not a book whose ‘subject is war and the pity of war’, so much as about human love, two survivors among thousands ‘who were slaughtered in a war perhaps more futile and meaningless than any other in history.’
At the beginning we meet John Hilliard, a young subaltern, lying awake in a military hospital, recovering from a shrapnel wound received on the western front. For three weeks, he has been afraid to go to sleep, and is speaking to Dr Crawford, whom he has known since childhood. He then returns home briefly on sick leave back in England, but it is an uncomfortable experience and he finds it hard to adapt to the old way of life there. Neither his sister, to whom he had been very close, or their parents have any real idea of the horrific conditions he has been enduring in the trenches. In no time he is longing to get back to the western front. When he does, he finds that his batman and many others whom he knew have been killed. Moreover the group's Commanding Officer, Colonel Garrett, has aged greatly under the stress of war, and has taken to drinking heavily.
Hilliard now finds himself sharing a room with a new officer, David Barton, as they await a call back to the front. The inexperienced Barton has had comparatively little experience of the war, and has never yet seen a dead body. When he and Hilliard see the wreckage of a German plane crash and the men who were killed as a result, he is naturally very shocked. Gradually his letters home to his own family convey how he is becoming hardened by everything at the battlefront, the misery and suffering he sees all around him. He complains that they are drones, not fighting men.
As the officers arrive at their billets, they learn that a new recruit, Harris, is virtually paralysed with terror and refuses to come out from the cellar. They talk him out of his fears and persuade him to come outside. Within minutes a shell falls on the billets and Harris is killed at once. The officers left behind are torn between guilt at inadvertently sending him to his death while arguing that he is fortunate in that he has been spared life in the trenches, possibly leading to more mental agony and a slow lingering end.
The book is largely concerned with human relationships, and beyond this, little happens. From one point of view, maybe it falls a little flat in that there are no really cataclysmic events beyond what we might call the sordid fog of the war itself. However there is no shortage of atmosphere. When the men go to Feuvry, they find there is barely a building left intact in the town after it had been shelled and occupied by the Germans soon after the outbreak of war. All that remains are piles of rubble and holes in the ground, fragments of broken children’s toys and furniture, pieces of chairs sticking out from the debris, rusted spring coils from sofas – all sad reminders of an apparently once secure and peaceful existence brutally shattered.
As for the rest of the story between Hilliard and Barton, is it simply the tale of a friendship forged in times of great adversity, or is it any more than that? The author leaves a certain amount to the imagination. There is an interesting underlying theme in the contrast between Hilliard’s formal, rather chilly family and Barton’s much closer siblings. The former evidently has an emotional vacuum which cries out to be filled.
I’d recommend this book with reservations. For me it was a little hard to get into, before I became acquainted with the characters. Ultimately it is quite a moving and powerful if somewhat difficult story, certainly a penetrating one in its analysis of relationships and feelings of guilt at sending men to their deaths, boredom, apprehension, and fear.