Ruth is 20 when her beloved husband Ben is killed, quite suddenly, by a falling tree. His family, especially his domineering mother, then want Ruth to behave and grieve and do things as they deem appropriate, while she can only lock herself away. She talks to Ben. She ventures out into the countryside to somehow connect with him. She begins to live with the idea that he is gone.
A lot of this I well recognised in my own loss. It came as no surprise that Hill based this novel on lived experience. As she explains in her Afterword,
"A few days after the death of the man I loved, a close friend of ours wrote me a note. He said, 'You should write about it, that is what you are for.' [Doing so] was a wholly cathartic experience, and I felt better for having done it - though I had by no means done with grieving - I had given a shape to a mass of messy emotions and reactions, and distanced myself slightly from them. The end of the book marked the beginning of the healing process, though it was a dreadfully slow business, and I came out of it all a changed person. But I was very conscious - I still am - of my immense good fortune in being a writer, able to a certain extent to make something positive out of the negative." (pp. 171-2)
Yesterday, queueing for an hour in the drizzle and fog for my anti-COVID booster, I read the bits where Ruth, given time, can put things more in perspective and even help others through their own loss and trauma. She knows the things not to say, and to ignore the barbed, unreasonable words and behaviour of the newly grieving. She recognises the madness, and gets on with the washing up, the small tasks that need doing and are all that can be done.
Every half-page of this, the queue shuffled one or two steps forward. People around me were spiky about having to wait, the lack of shelter and of anyone to tell us that there was one queue for those with pre-booked appointments and another, longer queue for us walk-ins. It wasn't right. It wasn't how it should be.
Just keep going, I thought. That's all we can do.