Susan Hill (2012) Dolly, A Ghost Story Profile Books, London; 192 pp.; ISBN 978-1-84668-574-3
When they were children, Edward and Leonora spent a summer at Iyot House in the fen country of eastern England. Iyot House was the home of their Aunt Kestrel. Edward’s parents died when he was young and Leonora’s mother has little time for her daughter. Edward is mild mannered and polite, but not overly happy to be staying in the house. His aunt thought that his cousin Leonora would be company for him, but Leonora is Edward’s polar opposite: vain, selfish and prone to fits of raging anger. Yet Edward senses something in her that needs protecting.
Leonora celebrates her birthday and gets the unimaginative gifts we all remember from childhood. What she really wants is a doll. Edward tells his aunt who then goes to London to buy a doll as a belated present. Leonora cannot contain her excitement on her aunt’s return but when she opens the gift it is not what she had in mind at all. Her reaction is violent and malicious, shocking those around her.
The mothers of Edward and Leonora were much younger sisters of Aunt Kestrel. They never got on and the animosity would resurface even when they had been apart for long periods. That vein of conflict and misery seems to permeate both strands of the family over ensuing generations.
When Edward is in middle age, Aunt Kestrel dies and he inherits Iyot House, much to the anger of Leonora who was expecting to get it all to herself. Edward and Leonora make an agreement to sell the house and divide the money but they both travel and the arrangement is not carried out. While working in a medieval town in eastern Europe, Edward finds a doll that is precisely like the one Leonora wanted as a child. He buys it and sends it back to Iyot House. Some time later Leonora moves to live in the house with her daughter but when Edward goes to visit he is shocked by the condition of both Leonora and her child.
On a holiday in India, Edward’s own daughter suffers an illness and nearly dies and we see the pattern of unhappiness in the extended family is linked to the two dolls – the one from childhood and the one purchased by Edward. Are the dolls the cause of the misery or do they merely reflect a deeper haunting that infects each generation?
Susan Hill is a prolific writer and specialises in ghost stories. The preface is dark and atmospheric, conveying the chill and loneliness of the fens. Her descriptions of the countryside and weather build up a sense of foreboding, and the village near Iyot House has an eeriness that builds anticipation. The portrayal of the eastern European town later in the book evokes the old buildings and dark narrow streets in short but telling prose. The characters are well drawn and the antithesis between the mild-mannered male and the furious female is a bit of a Susan Hill trademark.
But there are flaws in this novel which undid the magic for me. The first is the story’s chronology. In Chapter 1 we learn that Edward returns to Iyot House after forty years. Most of the early events take place when Edward is eight, so I assumed he was forty-eight on his return. Yet in Chapter 14 we find out that he visited his Aunt Kestrel into his teenage years, so he is more likely in his mid-fifties when he comes back. The problem is that when Leonora returns at the same time she is only forty-three. If Edward is forty-eight on his return, Leonora was only three years old when the events early in the novel took place, and this is patently not correct. If Edward is in his fifties when he returns, then Leonora would not even have been born when the early events took place.
The second issue relates to suspense. Suspense generally builds well through the novel, which is narrated in the third person. In the penultimate chapter the narration switches to Edward in the first person. This is acceptable, but much of the opening of that chapter is spent telling us that something horrible is about to be revealed. So much is made of this that when the revelation does come it is quite a let-down. The same pattern recurs, though not so heavy-handedly, in the final chapter.
We learn that Leonora is pregnant with her first child at the age of forty-three, perhaps a little less unusual these days but it seemed highly unlikely given that her pregnancy would have happened quite a few years ago. The location of the village also seemed to vary – at times the church was quickly reached from Iyot House and other times it was distant.
There is a sound of rustling paper that links suspense and horror in the story, but it struck me as an odd choice. Deep fog, storms, distant cries and babies sobbing are all present and are all satisfyingly chilling, but for me the rustling paper was more like that annoying person with a crisp packet who sits behind you in the pictures. Maybe it will work for other readers. The use of the two dolls is apt for a ghost story, with that delicious mixture of innocence and menace.
Susan Hill has great skill in creating uneasiness and building suspense, essential elements in a spine-chiller, but I’m afraid the novel’s flaws prevented me from enjoying the full impact of the tale.