The whole time I was reading Susan Hill’s novel The Mist in the Mirror I wanted to go back and read the whole thing again. At the end of every paragraph — at the end of every sentence — I was thinking that I needed to go right back to the start, to let every word sit on my tongue, to pick apart every phrase to see how it worked. I wanted to smell the place, to live in it. And then I got to the last page, and decided never to read it again.
The Mist in the Mirror is a story within a story: it’s a manuscript passed on by a soon-to-be-dead man, Sir James Monmouth, to a younger man at his gentlemen’s club. Monmouth spent his childhood abroad, and in the absence of family and career has nothing better to do than return to England to trace a mysterious explorer named Conrad Vane. He soon discovers that Conrad Vane’s life is entangled in his own, and he must travel back to the English home he doesn’t remember to uncover the mystery.
As always with Susan Hill, the novel is utterly absorbing. I could taste the snow on my tongue and hear the ghosts muttering past my ears. I feel like I visited every location: the draughty library, the threatening church, the quiet bedroom with its view of the river. The descriptions of England are vivid and whimsical, but those of India, Africa and the Far East are even more absorbing:
There had been only heat and dryness for month after month, followed abruptly by monsoon, when the sky gathered and then burst like a boil and sheets of rain deluged the earth, turning it to mud, roaring like a yellow river, hot, thunderous rain that made the air sweat and steam. Rain that beat down upon the world like a mad thing and then ceased, leaving only debris in its wake.
This quote may make it seem that the book is long-winded and full of description, but Susan Hill is a master of the understated. The end of the opening paragraph sets the scene perfectly: “Rain. London. The back end of the year.” I could open the book at random to any page and find an eminently quotable phrase. The prose is perfectly wrought and no word is wasted. The plot’s mystery is deliciously delicate, with hints dropped like a trail of sweeties. I was enthralled all the way through.
And now we come to the ending. Throughout the book, the tension and suspense are built to a terrifying and thrilling crescendo, all ready for the revelation of– nothing. Without spoiling the mystery, I think it’s fair to say that there really is no mystery. It seems a shame to weave such a perfect scenario with words and then just allow it to sink.
I still highly recommend Susan Hill’s work — it’s atmospheric, enthralling, and pitch-perfect. Read it for the mood and quality of the prose rather than waiting for the exciting plot revelations. The Mist in the Mirror has its flaws, but as with any Susan Hill novel it goes perfectly with a slow weekend of drizzling rain and several cups of tea.