And then we both wanted to read it ....
But Michael got in first so he's written the review.
I'm pleased to share Michael Murray's review of 'Is it Her?' by Jonathan Hill and Kath Middleton
Drama teachers are aware of a technique which involves presenting a photograph or painting to a group of students and asking them to improvise the circumstances leading up to the moment the image frozen in the frame occurs. The students can also be invited to improvise the development of the action beyond the frozen image and project the characters into the future: a 'What Happened Next?' exercise.
As a drama teacher I was rarely satisfied with this technique because it often resulted in superficial outcomes and working in a busy drama department there was rarely the time for the students to explore the technique in depth or layer in ever greater complexity.
However, Kath Middleton and Jonathan Hill have shown that the technique provides a wonderful stimulus for writers, not least because they obviously have had the time and motivation to develop the necessary complexities and create stories of depth and significance which resonate far beyond the original frozen image.
'Is it Her?', an intriguing picture by artist Rod Buckingham, is the visual stimulus chosen by the writers for their independent novellas both of which have been written without collusion. The painting depicts a bend in a cobbled road somewhere in a town or village. Terraced houses with red doors line up on either side of the bend but are separated by a gap. Linking the houses across this gap is a set of curved, iron railings. The houses and railings appear to be on a hill or a rise, overlooking a hidden landscape, possibly a plain or sea; perhaps a pond. The sky is overcast and filled with dense banks of louring cloud which extend all the way to the barely visible horizon. The cobbled road glistens beneath the pouring rain. A woman in an arresting red coat or dress stands at the railings holding aloft an opened and equally arresting bright red umbrella. The woman's back is to us as she looks out across the sea or plain towards the horizon. In the foreground of the picture an Austin Seven is parked, its bonnet towards us. The engine is running and puffs of smoke issue from the exhaust. The driver has just got out of the car and has started walking towards the woman in red. His back is also to us. In the road, to the driver's right, is another figure, possibly an old man. He carries a stick and is walking his dog. His back is to us as well. The period could be any time in the 1930s or 1940s. The scene is dismal but conveys a strong impression of mystery: there is a quality of suspense, as though something tumultuous is about to happen.
The gap between the terraced houses implies dissolution, fracture, separation yet the railings linking the two sets of houses like fragile black hairs suggest that a tenuous connection is retained and not all hope is lost. The setting is grey and bleak yet on the doors and on the woman's dress and umbrella the strongly contrasting presence of the colour red, the colour of blood, life and animation, provides a vivid contrast with the drab, prosaic setting and suggests survival, continuance, and the triumph of life over death. The principal figures in the painting are both engaged in some kind of search yet there is distance between all three which implies alienation. What intense yearning or longing motivates the woman to wait patiently in the pouring rain searching the horizon? Or is she merely waiting for a lift into town? Is there a complex relationship between the motorist and the woman or has he simply stopped to ask directions? What is the significance of the man with the dog?
The picture's semiotics are perfectly incorporated within the novellas it inspires. I will not commit the sin of divulging the plot of either. However, in both novellas the Second World War is a vital catalyst: transforming lives and sending them spinning off in totally different directions, creating unforeseen and unexpected character arcs. Kath Middleton's 'Is it Her?' is the more epic. It begins with a pre-war romance in which only one of the parties truly appreciates the threat the coming conflict presents to the future happiness of ordinary lives. Exceptionally well researched, it follows the characters for the period of the war and with many realistic and authentic details chronicles their anxieties, terrors and tragedies. On the way it beautifully evokes the tenor of those times: the enforced cheerfulness, infectious camaraderie, blind faith, daily hardships and disappointments. Yet the work also surprises us by finding altruism in unexpected places and by confounding clichés and stereotypes. It reveals the best in people and the worst in people. I particularly admired the skill with which Kath Middleton presents this wonderful, great sweep of a story within the limited canvas of a novella and tells it from the points of view of different characters; also her metaphorical use of the colour red which beautifully acts as a leitmotif throughout. The story ends at the frozen moment in the artist's frame but, like Keats' Grecian Urn, the uncompleted act tantalisingly suspends us between present and future. We savour the irony of knowing so much more than the characters and can only speculate on the shock, sadness, relief, amazement and delight with which the extraordinary information they have to impart to each other will be received. We ask whether they can ever be what they once were to each other again. The best stories do not end with the final word but continue resonating in the minds of their readers encouraging them to supply what has been deliberately omitted.
The events of 'Is it Her?' by Jonathan Hill principally occupy one night in which two men are preparing to leave their loved ones and set off for the war. Jonathan Hill creates with a sure economy the atmosphere of apprehension, dread, anger and reflectiveness that one would naturally associate with such circumstances. The novella is written in the present tense which is a masterly choice because it gives the piece compelling immediacy, but Jonathan Hill also uses it with great technical skill to suggest that, although the wartime situation is understandably tense, the hidden secrets of certain characters are generating an additional subtext which imbues their most innocuous acts or words with social danger and a threat of impending dissolution and chaos. This creates an electric atmosphere of tension and suspense and produces powerful drama. Jonathan Hill also cleverly uses the frustrating restrictions and limitations imposed by the wartime blackout to unbearably ratchet up the frustration and create even more tension. When the moment of awful revelation comes, the superb quality of the writing ensures that it is traumatic for all concerned, including the reader. The revelation also provides us with a delicious sense of that dramatic irony that can only be appreciated in retrospect when the assistance of elapsed time affords us the opportunity at the end of the story to look back and see the powerful subtext suffusing the work. Using a most ingenious point of view, Jonathan Hill takes us up to and beyond the moment frozen in the artist's frame, provides yet more tragedy and projects us into the future. Finally, he supplies a poignantly moving coda which incorporates regeneration and hope and affords us a glimpse of the better world that will arise from the ashes.
The two novellas in their different ways are superbly inventive and their resolutions poignant and moving. They provide very different interpretations of the painting but both reflect the consequences of war, the profound revelations those consequences produce and the dramatic ironies they create for the reader. In Jonathan Hill's case the ironies are strongly foregrounded; in Kath Middleton's they are more oblique yet, ultimately, in both cases, the ironies are brought about by the retrospective enlightenment afforded by historical perspective. None of the principal characters in either novella are untouched by death, yet both stories illustrate that when much is lost, out of the ruins something may also be gained. Therefore, despite everything, their resolutions are positive. Both novellas are complex works in miniature and they are highly recommended.