Two strangers come to the isolated village of Illthwaite, two strangers with history to explore and secrets to overturn. Sam Flood, a young Australian destined for Cambridge, is searching for information about her grandmother, deported from the village as a child four decades ago. Miguel - Mig - Madero, who became a historian after his flight from a Spanish seminary, has come in search of an ancestor last seen setting sail with the Armada in 1588.
The two first cross-paths staying at The Stranger House, the eerie village Inn that's as hostile as it is hospitable, full of people who conceal as much as they reveal. They do not, at first, hit it off. And here we have our first display of one of the novel's underlying aspects: the conflict between logic, reason (Sam is a mathematician) and spirituality. As the two characters look to seek out and overturn histories long buried, the novel floods with the mystical and mythical, the seemingly inexplicable happenstances of the past, made even worse by the dissonance between what people say occurred and why and the reality. It's only when the two warm to one another that things, for both of them, start to unravel and make sense. Understanding the past, Hill hints, requires an open viewpoint, a mix of filters.
Both strangers in a strange land, their senses of isolation, of being an outsider, are at times extreme. Especially when people are not being straight with them. Outright denial of a person's existence is negated when Sam unearths a gravestone in the local church, complete with the person's engraved name. It's first in a long line of uncovered deceptions. The people of Illthwaite, it is clear, do not want to be open. And those who do wish to be open are suspicious at best. The atmosphere of isolation breeds a hysteric one of danger, of fear.
It's also a book about the nature of community, of belonging. Dark Illthwaite, isolated itself at the base of a valley, sun hidden by undulating hills, clubs together in the face of interrogation, is complicit in silence, and yet must maintain an unnerving façade of friendliness. Appearances, clearly, count for a lot.
The most obvious triumph of this novel? The two protagonists. Frankly, Hill's craft in drawing them is beyond praise. They're vivid, real, human, funny, passionate, and ridiculously engaging. It's a long book, but you're glad that it is, if just to spend it in the company of these vibrant, breathing characters. Hill's flare here is undiminished. The least obvious triumph? The fact that there's nary a crime in sight. This, when the final page is turned, is merely a novel where the characters discover their ancestors, and their own history, their own context, by scrubbing slowly away at the soil of untruths. No murders, no viciously spilled blood. And I only realised that when I'd actually finished the thing. "Wait a second..." my brain went. Hill, it's easy to forget, has been in this game for years, and there's a reason why he's one of the most accomplished crime writers in the world. There's no real crime here, and yet Hill's overflowing talent means there's as much suspense, as much mystery, as much tension and need-to-know-what's-going-on desperation on the part of the reader as there is would be in the first five books of a less experienced practitioner.
There's something that perhaps shouldn't work about this book: the fact that it's full of so very much. One the one hand, it's incredibly clever and learned (Hill displays not just knowledge but understanding of everything from Mathematics to Norse myth) at the same time as being incredibly light and jocular; it's dark and oppressive at the same time as being funny and bawdy; it's so full of characters that brim with neon life; it's so full of history, yet is so grippingly immediate. It's full of stuff, and full of contrasts, and it works at every single level it aims at.
A serious book, it's also hugely enjoyable. This, I think, can be said of all his work, and that is something to be proud of. He's a special writer indeed; there's certainly no one writing books quite like his. A novel wreathed in mystery and myth, soaked with secrets and history, The Stranger House is one of the most unique and remarkable books of the year. Hill deserves several cheers for this.