The Small Hand: A Ghost Story, by Susan Hill

small hand

[Warning – spoilers ahead]

The protagonist of The Small Hand is Adam Snow, a bachelor and dealer in high-end antiquarian books, an independent, not to say restless, man who travels extensively on business but has little personal life to speak of.  One day he is returning to his London home from visiting a wealthy client and finds himself lost down an overgrown lane in Sussex with dusk closing in.  While trying to find his way back to the main road, he comes across an abandoned property which he subsequently learns is called The White House.  Feeling drawn to it he walks into its overgrown garden, and has a peculiar experience, that of the sensation of a child’s hand clasped in his, even though there is no child to be seen.  Repeats of the sensation at intervals result in panic attacks, the initial comforting feel of the small hand takes on a malign cast, and at times he feels that it is trying to pull him to his destruction.  Eventually he begins to wonder about his sanity.  He discovers that the garden, owned by a woman called Denisa (Denny) Parsons, was celebrated decades before, but then her young grandson had downed in an ornamental pool.

Hill’s prose is limpid and she has a tremendous ability to evoke a sense of place, whether a gloomy abandoned Sussex garden, a remote French monastery and the turbulent weather as Adam drives to it, or a cosy Oxford restaurant.  Characterisation though feels less well developed.  Adam has what are startling experiences but usually manages to brush them aside.  After a fraught conversation in which he wonders if he is harbouring suicidal thoughts, he says ‘I was to look back on that night with longing – longing for the sense of peace I knew then…’  But that suggests a ratcheting of tension, whereas he has a weird experience followed by a crisis, and then he puts it aside until the next one.  The result is a dissipation of tension in the narrative.

Drawn to the White House, Adam has a possible encounter with Denny herself and seems to go back in time to when the garden was in its glory.  The sensation is of such intensity that he collapses.  Later that evening, after a bath and a drink, he is able to chat amiably about a valuable acquisition he has acquired for his wealthy client.  ‘Denny’, he concludes, was just an old lady who had broken into the house and was squatting in it.  His ability to repress is remarkable.  The reader is left wondering whether he met the living Denny or a ghost, but Adam parks the encounter, just as he does all the others.

There does seem a purpose to the event though; he is shown a scrapbook which has a photograph of himself and his brother as small boys, sitting with a still younger child on a bench by a pond in the garden.  This leads him to confront his brother with the knowledge that they had been to the garden with their mother but Adam had forgotten, and that helps to unravel what had happened, and who the third boy was.  If the encounter with Denny was real, seeing the photograph was extremely fortuitous; if hallucination, perhaps Adam’s subconscious was giving him information he already knew.  Or was it somehow a complex telepathic transmission from the young ghost?  It’s never explained.  When Adam hears the story of what occurred that day, it seems unlikely that all three were sitting in that position in the garden, still less likely that there was someone present to photograph them.  There is also some fudging going on over the ghost’s age, involving the possibility that the ghostly child is growing in Spirit, presumably because a child small enough for another child to drown (without getting himself wet) wouldn’t be considered much of a threat to an adult.

I misread the name Denny Parsons at first because I thought Hill had written ‘Denys Parsons’, and was surprised that she had introduced a real person into the novel.  Denys Parsons was an Honorary Secretary of the Society for Psychical Research, and an author of several lightweight humorous books.  The names seem rather too close to be chance, but the connection is unclear.  However, Denys Parsons wrote a paper for the Journal of the SPR in 1961 called ‘A Non-existent Building Located’, in which he managed to track down what a couple claimed had been an imposing country house hotel that they had seen once, in Sussex as it happens, but had not been able to locate again; they had concluded it had been a hallucination but Parsons showed it did exist.  The White House itself is certainly not a hallucination and Adam finds it again, though it is possible that he has a complex hallucination while there.  But the mystery surrounding it creates an uncanny atmosphere, just as the couple who could not find that hotel would have felt their inability to retrace their route to it, and who therefore doubted its existence, was uncanny.

It is fairly clear early on, as soon as we learn about the drowning in the garden, who the ghost is, but the link with Adam is not revealed until the end.  The revelation though raises a few questions, notably did Adam find his way to The White House by accident or was he drawn there by some influence?  Had he witnessed the death and repressed it, his lack of memory the result of his own psychic trauma?  The more significant question though is why Adam is the focus rather than the person who we finally learn was directly involved in the tragedy.  Adam, not to mention the reader, is none the wiser at the end, and the haunting of Adam Snow feels simultaneously personal and somewhat pointless.

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