Susan Hill

Strange Meeting

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Strange Meeting Summary

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World War I serves as the time period for Strange Meeting, a 1971 novel by Susan Hill. The title is a reference to a poem by Wilfred Owen, a poet of the First World War. The novel consists of three parts and also includes an afterword by the author.

As part one opens, John Hilliard is recovering from a war wound in a military hospital. He meets with Doctor Crawford,a childhood acquaintance John has a strong dislike for. When John returns home on sick leave, he is unable to sleep. It is, perhaps, ironic that his discomfort stems not from his experiences at war, but rather because he hates being home. Home to John is England where he is with his father, his mother, Constance, and his sister, Beth, with whom he was once close,though he no longer feels that way. His family shows no recognition of what John’s experiences at war were like,and when he is sufficiently recovered, he is happy to return to the battle.

Upon returning to his battalion, John finds that many of the men he had known have been killed. Colonel Garrett, their commander, seems to John to have aged quickly. His batman has died and been replaced by another named Coulter. John is put with a new officer named David Barton in a camp where they are to await their call to the front. Barton is inexperienced in war;he and John become fast friends. Franklin, a new Adjutant, though with the group,seems detached from the others. At the end of the section, John and David come upon the wreckage of a downed German plane and Barton has his first glimpse of a dead body.

In part two, Company B, the group of which John and David are a part, travels toward the Feuvry front line. David goes on foot as there are not enough horses for all of the men. In a letter he is writing, he describes Feuvry as a rundown place with almost no buildings remaining unscathed, having been shelled and occupied in 1914 by the Germans. When the men reach their temporary quarters, or billets, they are told that Harris, a new recruit,has been overcome by fear and sequestered himself in the cellar of the building. David talks with the man and convinces him to come out of the cellar. David then goes to get a drink for Harris to help calm him but while he is doing so, a shell lands on the billets and Harris is killed. David is filled with guilt, as he believes he is responsible, because had Harris remained in the cellar, he would have been out of harm’s way. David writes another letter, in which he reveals he is becoming hardened by the war, and that John finds accepting the deaths of so many and getting used to new arrivals, to be the most difficult part of the war. At the end of part two, David is sent to the front lines to construct a map of the area with Grosse, a runner. At the front, he sees a shelling that kills a number of men and also sees a man killed by a German sniper. By the time he returns from the front, he is numb to his emotions, having seen so many deaths and knowing how great the number is every day.

A long letter by David opens part three of Strange Meeting. He is fearful that the military might censor his letter but he feels strongly about letting the people back home know the truth of what is going on in the war. In it, he expresses his feeling that they have become “drones” rather than men in battle. John, meanwhile, has received a letter from Beth telling him that she is engaged to marry Henry Partington, a lawyer. This angers John. At this point, John and David are sent on a reconnaissance mission to spy on the enemy. They and some of the men begin the assignment, but when a flare gives away their location, they retreat, having suffered some casualties. In another letter home, David admits that the unending stream of deaths is draining his courage. Soon, news arrives that they are set to advance. David and John talk about what they will do after the war and suddenly realize that they are basing their thoughts on the big assumption that they will both still be alive when the war ends. During the advance, they lose track of each other. John is hit by a shell and hides in a hole that contains dead bodies. Ultimately, he loses his leg to the injury and for some time is not in a condition to return to England. He receives a letter from David’s parents telling him that David is missing and thought to be dead. He visits his friend’s parents when he is able to return to England. While John relays to David’s parents that it is unlikely that their son is alive, David’s fate remains somewhat ambiguous as the novel ends.

In her afterword, Hill explains that she wanted the novel to be one about love as much as one about war.