Book reviews, musings and waffle from a British lit addict

Review: ‘The Man in the Picture’ by Susan Hill

Rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis

A mysterious depiction of masked revellers at the Venice carnival hangs in the college rooms of Oliver’s old professor in Cambridge. On this cold winter’s night, its eerie secret is revealed by the ageing don. The dark art of the Venetian scene, instead of imitating life, has the power to entrap it. To stare into the painting is to play dangerously with the unseen demons it hides, and become the victim of its macabre beauty.


Review
I’ve had an up-and-down relationship with Susan Hill’s work over the past couple of years.  I read The Small Hand back in September 2011 and was decidedly underwhelmed (review here).  Then I was, as most predicted, in awe of The Woman in Black (review here).  When I saw this teeny tiny book tucked away in my local library, I figured that it was about time I read a tie-breaker.

I was going to try and write this review without comparisons to either but I soon realised that just wasn’t going to happen.  For me, The Man in the Picture was much definitely better than The Small Hand but definitely not as good as The Woman in Black.  A happy medium and a book that I liked but not one that I’ll be forcing on my friends and family.

There’s a lot about this story to like.  The descriptions of the titular picture are wonderfully atmospheric and Hill manages to make the depiction of a Venetian carnival sound genuinely sinister.  In spells, Hill can be one heck of a writer!  


Our main character, Oliver, is one of those superbly sheltered academics with a penchant for rationalising the unusual.  Call me macabre, but I like my ghost stories to be accompanied by the destruction of a young man’s boundaries!  This is a less extreme example than other ghost stories that we might mention but Oliver still has that moment where the shadows are creeping in and he tries to shake them off with logic.  Balancing a wisened professor at the end of his career against the younger and more idealistic counterpart isn’t new but it worked.

For all the good points, there was something about the novella that felt a little off.  Almost as though the key scenes had been dreamt up in isolation, jotted down and then linked together with disquiet.  There were some that were poignant and had me utterly gripped but then there were others where the spell broke and I was left with that feeling that in a longer book might have turned to incredulity. The characters didn’t have much in the way of motivations or ideas or anything, really, that gave me something to cling onto or root for.  Hill trades heavily in atmosphere at the expense of telling a well-rounded story.  The book was based on a fantastic idea and really does have some great moments so I shan’t criticise too much; its length means that there isn’t too much time to dwell on the feeling of disconnection before the next captivating moment comes along.

One thing that I am now utterly convinced about, though, is Hill’s ability to write a fabulous ending.  The ending of The Woman in Black is just…brilliant.  The ending to The Man in the Picture has a similar haunting quality with a question tucked so delicately into its final pages that I finished it and had that moment where you kind of shudder and have the distinct feeling that there might just be some things out there that aren’t very nice at all.

Overall:  A solid ghost story with a fabulous ending. It isn’t perfect but it’s so short that it’s almost impossible not to read in one sitting and revel in its darkness.  A really worthy idea that fell a little short in execution but is still worth curling up with for some chills.

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Date finished:  19 March 2012
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Borrowed from my local library
Genre:  Thriller; Horror
Published: by Profile Books Limited in October 2008