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Customer Review

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An Exercise in Anticlimaxes, 3 Jan. 2013
This review is from: The Mist In The Mirror (Hardcover)
The Mist in the Mirror is the fourth ghost story I've read by Susan Hill and while I usually try to judge a book on its own merit, it's hard not to think that perhaps the author peaked with The Woman in Black. Her ghost stories seem to get progressively worse. The story follows retired amateur explorer James Monmouth as he returns to England with the intention of writing a biography of his hero and spiritual mentor Conrad Vane. During his research into the mysterious Vane, James finds himself experiencing ghostly goings-on as he finds that Vane had a dark side as well as uncovering his own forgotten past.

Firstly, it has to be said that Susan Hill is a wonderful writer. She describes scenes, characters and events in a wonderfully descriptive way, much like a classic Victorian writer and as such, The Mist in the Mirror feels authentically "Gothic" in style. Hill has a way of portraying a chilling atmosphere on the page through her writing style and it's very easy to lose yourself in her imagery, which is perhaps why her previous ghost stories have been so successful. Unfortunately this is about all the book gets right. In a moment of unintentional fourth wall-breaking, there was one passage in particular that summed up the entire reading experience for me:

"I felt as though I had been excitedly following some path, with great difficulty, led on, led on - only to arrive at a dead end, a blank wall. Nothing.
Is this all? I asked. Apparently it was."

Sadly I found the story to be full of anticlimaxes and deeply unsatisfying as a result. The Conrad Vane story arc is suitably mysterious and I wanted to find out more but it never really comes to fruition. Likewise, Monmouth discovering his past fizzles out without much explanation, as does the identity of the ghostly child who plagues Monmouth's journeys. At one point, the lead character admits that he feels he knows who the boy is, yet never reveals to the audience. And as for the titular "Mirror," it appears twice in the whole story and collectively takes up approximately two paragraphs. I felt myself reading through wondering when the story would really take off, but it wasn't until I noticed that I was two thirds of the way in that I realised it wasn't going to happen.

I think after reading Woman in Black, Man in the Picture and to a lesser degree The Small Hand, I was expecting more. The aforementioned stories all started slowly, gradually racking up the tension to a chilling climax. However The Mist in the Mirror starts off with a mild amount of tension and never gets much scarier. Whenever a "scary moment" would happen I'd find myself getting worked up - this is it! This is going to be the big payoff! - but they all fizzle out like a joke without a punchline.

Ultimately The Mist in the Mirror isn't a terrible book and had it been longer, or had Susan Hill made more of an effort to tie everything up nicely it could have been something special. The plot's premise is intriguing but it's very, very unsatisfying - not just at the ending but throughout. There are too many threads left hanging, there is a massive pacing problem two-thirds into the story and the ending is clearly rushed in favour of a twist, despite the fact that said twist is the result of a huge plot hole (see comments below for spoilers). I'm a huge fan of Susan Hill, and I'm being generous with 3 stars (more like 2.5), but The Mist in the Mirror is by far her weakest ghost story yet. To summarise with an analogy, reading this book is like craving a curry at the end of a night out, and instead going home to a slice of toast. I hope Hill's next book, Dolly, is a return to form.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 3 Jan 2013 12:26:53 GMT
Right then as for the plot hole: *BIG SPOILERS BELOW!!!*

The young man decides to look into buying Lady Quincebridge's manor after realising it is the same one from Monmouth's manuscript. He comes across one of the ornate mirrors from the story and finds that his own reflection has misted over to show someone else's face. However, earlier on in the story, it is revealed that there are two matching mirrors - one at the school in Alton and one at Kittiscar. How does the same mirror end up at the Quincebridge house? Sadly we never find out.

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Oct 2014 11:28:33 BDT
M. Williams says:
CitizenWolfie, you've pretty much nailed everything that is wrong with 'The Mist in the Mirror' in your excellent review above (to the extent that I don't feel obliged to contribute a 'formal' review of my own - it would surely be superfluous!) I've tackled the book on two or three occasions over the years, each time hoping to discover something that I missed before. And I never do.

Susan Hill is a highly accomplished novelist - and, what is more, she is one of the only writers working today in the grand tradition of the greatest of them all, M.R. James. She excels when evoking ATMOSPHERE: the icy, fog-bound streets of Edwardian London; steam-trains, log fires and country houses; the desolate countryside of Northern England. And she does not hesitate to contrast darkness and terror with intervals of cosy warmth and brightness - making the contrast between the two extremes seem all the more pronounced and chilling (think of the jovial family Christmas in the prologue to 'The Woman in Black' or, in this case, the scenes set at the public school with Dr Dancer - was that his name? - and at the lovely home of Lady Quincebridge). But where Hill falls down - quite catastrophically, I'm afraid - is on a coherent PAY-OFF. 'The Woman in Black' was a beautifully constructed and satisfying work of fiction, in which each piece was carefully slotted into place, leaving no loose ends or rough edges. 'The Mist in the Mirror' is nothing but a parcel of loose ends - for most, if not all, of the reasons you've listed above. I have a lively imagination and I don't ask an author to spell out every last detail for me; but nor do I appreciate that aching sense of sheer frustration which, by the final page, pretty much negates the meticulous delineation of background and, indeed, the entire reading experience.

As you say, this is not a terrible book and, given that Hill is perhaps the only writer working today in the tradition of James, I wish I could like it more. I'm only sorry that I don't.

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Oct 2014 19:02:23 BDT
Thank you for the kind words! I'm glad you liked the review.

I can't decide if I'm being too forgiving on it because it's written by Hill and I know she can do better or if I'm being too harsh on it because it's written by Hill and I know she can do better. It's a strange one. Thankfully, her next book "Dolly" was much better. Still not "Woman in Black" standards but about as good as "Man in the Picture." But you put it perfectly at the end, I really wanted to like it but I just didn't.
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