Book review: Walter and Florence and Other Stories by Susan Hill

The thing I love about Bookish Twitter is that you discover new and unexpected gems every single day. A few weeks ago I responded to a tweet from writer Susan Hill, asking for book bloggers to be in touch. Under a week later I was sat in my garden, enjoying a copy of her latest collection of short stories.

Walter and Florence and Other Stories was published on 10th May 2020 by Long Barn Books, and for short story lovers it is a must read.

This is a collection of ‘real’ stories. This may seem a strange thing to say and maybe it is. But what I mean by this is that from the beginning I was enthralled by each tale , I was captured. I wasn’t looking for the deeper meaning, my attention wasn’t wondering, I wasn’t even pausing to make notes.

I was just enjoying that simple but honest pleasure of being told a good story.

The subject matter found within the collection is diverse, and showcases the author’s skill, experience and versatility as a writer. There is a gentleness, and a beguiling charm to the stories that are woven here. There isn’t a story in this collection which I was able to break away from.

To those of you who have read, and marvelled at Hill’s The Woman in Black it will come as no surprise when I tell you that the two ghost stories within this volume are special.

The title story Walter and Florence begins as the tale of a quiet domestic life. A couple drawn to each other, childless but happy; their marriage is the very model of ‘for better, for worse.’ But when one spouse dies, the other is left vulnerable. The ending is unexpected but triumphant. And steeped in the supernatural.

The Quiet House again centres around a widow. Lost, lonely and barely recovered following the death of his beloved, the unnamed widow takes refuge in the The Quiet House, trying to escape the demands of Christmas. But what he finds there is most unexpected. So too is what he discovers about himself.

There is a feeling in several of these stories of a reawakening. Of characters finding answers, or even asking new questions; a sense that a life they thought was mapped out for them might not be as secure as they thought. For example in Irish Twins we see Fern struggling to find her place in the world when the ties between her and her sister begin to break. This is the bond she has always relied on begins to give her life shape and meaning. How does she move forwards now?

And similarly Paula, the wife of Adrian, captured so perfectly in Hunger, finds moving to the country is not what she anticipated it would be. But the reality might something all together more liberating.

Each story has a clear sense of pace and purpose. Sometimes rooted firmly in the domestic, but never humdrum or dull, the characters are beautifully drawn. They speak to the reader and take the mind’s eye into their own world. This is never more true than in the case of the final story Reader, I Married Him.

This piece was published in a collection of stories of the same title, edited by Tracey Chevalier. This was a collection of works connected to and inspired by Jane Eyre, published by Harper Collins.

In this story Hill has painted a haunting, sometimes quite heartbreaking portrait of an ageing Duchess of Windsor. We find this infamous woman looking back on her life and the choices she made, with a raw frankness. It is a simple yet compelling challenge to the long held view of the manipulative femme fatale, who stole a king.

This is a collection of stories that will charm and entertain. They are written with authority. There is a sense of an author in charge of her craft throughout, drawing her audience in and holding them lightly in her hand. This is story telling at it’s best.

Rachel x

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