If you’re like me, you associate Susan Hill with Gothic spookiness (The Woman in Black) and/or murder (her series of Simon Serrailler mysteries.) Lanterns Across the Snow is neither one nor the other, though her usual predilections peek out in unexpected places.
This very short book (under 80 pages) is Fanny Hart’s reminiscence about a Christmas past — one that happened when she was nine years old and lived in the Wessex countryside, around the turn of the century. The memories take us from Christmas Eve, where her father is saying Evensong, to carolers awakening her from sleep, to presents on Christmas morning, to a few other surprises. The language is lush, detailed, and observant the way a child would be, of small emotional ups and downs: the glory of the snow and the intense cold, the quick smiles and frowns of parents, the bewilderment about God and his angels.
As I mentioned, Hill doesn’t let this quite fall into syrupy nostalgia. The brief prologue tells us that everyone in the narrative except Fanny is now dead, and she is the only one left to remember, which casts a slight shadow over the bright, happy proceedings. A death (though not a mysterious one) occurs on Christmas morning, and Fanny’s father, the vicar, is called away to attend to it. Poverty, death, birth, work, love, and glory are all glimpsed in this tiny work. It’s mostly the happy memories of a child — but there’s a touch of something else there.
I read this in an hour, for my book group (we didn’t want to assign too much over the holidays.) If you’re looking for something light and wintry to read, you might bookmark this one.