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Adam Snow, a dealer of high-end secondhand books, is driving through the rural hinterland of southeast England when, half-lost in the dusk, he comes across an abandoned building called the White House. He does not recognise it. It is "a solid Edwardian house, long and with a wide verandah" (pp. 3-4), and surrounded by an extensive garden. The garden, though, is overgrown and the house appears deserted. Standing in the garden, he feels "a small hand creep into my right one, as if a child had come up beside me in the dimness and taken hold of it" (p. 6). But he can see no child.

This is the action of the first chapter of The Small Hand, and it cues us to read the text as a ghost story in the classic mode. We expect, in some sense, answers to the questions it raises. Who does the hand belong to? Who lived in the house? Why is it now deserted? When writing a story like this, a writer has to decide how much such questions will be answered, and so how much ambiguity will be left.

Susan Hill has had a long and varied career, but is probably best known for a story of generational haunting, The Woman in Black (1983). A stage adaptation of this book has run in London since 1989, and both versions demonstrate Hill's knowledge of the ghost story tradition of M. R. James and the like. Her skill is certainly evident in the management of The Small Hand as its narrative tugs us forward. At the very least, it's carefully paced and enormously readable.

After his first encounter with the child's hand in the garden of the White House, Adam returns to London and continues his business. The main client we see him working for is a man named Sir Edgar Merriman, who is "incaculably rich" and lives on the south coast of England not far from the White House. Merriman asks Adam to try to find him a copy of Shakespeare's First Folio. In ordinary circumstances, this would be an impossible assignment, but as it happens Adam has a contact at Oxford's Bodleian Library who alerts him to a copy that might be for sale from a French monastery's library. So Adam travels there to try to locate and value the book.

At the same time, Adam is clearly driven to find out more about the White House and the identity of the child whose presence visited him. Merriman's wife Alice happens to know something of it and provides Adam with a press clipping that gives some of the backstory. The house had previously been inhabited by a woman named Denisa Parsons, who had created an "internationally famous" garden around it, but who had evidently been stricken after her grandson drowned nearby. Periodically throughout the narrative Adam has also been visited by recurrences of visitations from the child's hand, sometimes accompanied by what seem like panic attacks. So he goes to talk to his brother Hugo, a teacher in a private school in Suffolk, himself recovering from a recent nervous breakdown. Adam seeks help from Hugo, but their conversation is inconclusive and Adam continues walking by himself down to a river. He senses the presence of the hand again, and that it belongs "to someone whose intentions were wholly benign and who was well disposed towards me, who was trusting" (p. 48). The question the ghost presents by implication is: what are the right or wrong actions when a child puts its trust in you?

At this point, about a third of the way through the story—The Small Hand is a short book—the genre reader might feel they know the way the story is heading. It seems as if the hand belongs to Denisa Parson's grandson, the boy who drowned at the White House, and that's all that needs to be known. The reader might also feel a little impatient at Adam's failure to come come to this conclusion sooner. But the story isn't that simple, and the remainder of the book heads towards a different identification of the child whose hand it "really" is.

Without spoiling the ending, the important thing to say is that it is an identification. Adam can hold the hand, or let go of it, and knows the meaning of both those acts. The Small Hand's answers to the first chapter's questions are almost total, and so the story shuts down with a finality that seems curiously old-fashioned. As I suggested above, this story stands in stark contrast to all of those which have, for a century or more, refused this kind of narrative closure. From Henry James through Robert Aickman, Peter Straub, and Kelly Link—just to take a few obvious names—ghost stories have gained power from not telling the reader everything. The other obvious recent comparison is Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger (2009), whose reticence about the true nature of its own ghost is central to how the story works. To put it very reductively, The Small Hand is structured round a past deed that needs to be paid off, like a credit card bill with a few decades' interest. It gets paid. The end.

So, in its neatness, The Small Hand harks back to earlier models of the ghost story, an effect amplified by the way it's told. Despite its contemporary setting, the book takes place almost entirely in enclaves protected from the modern world: Merriman's luxuriously appointed house, Hugo's home, the monastery, the Bodleian, the White House itself. Adam is able to afford a flat in Chelsea, which suggests he's a very high-end bookdealer indeed. Even references to phone-calls, or to a piece of music by Britten, feel more modern than the story's default.

The crux of this is Adam's first-person narrative. Given the events it describes, it should be a voice full of interiority and self-reflection. It's not just, as I hinted earlier, that Adam reaches conclusions about the story more slowly than the reader; he also withholds his emotions far more than most readers would in a similar situation. So the Adam presented to us through the text also seems curiously archaic. He fits perfectly into the settings he describes, each of which could have existed with only minor alterations a century ago.

Of course, it would be a narrow and prescriptive view that said every book published in 2010 had to reference Twitter and Justin Bieber or embrace all the techniques of postmodernism. But I think we have to see The Small Hand's refusal of the modern world as a choice on the author's part, a choice with costs. It amplifies the sense that Adam is a solitary person, cut off by temperament from many of the things around him; and this willed isolation might be behind his failures to recognize the true shape of the story. But the same isolation that pushes other characters away from Adam works to push the reader away from his story. His overwhelming avoidance of emotional connection makes this an astonishingly cold book.

It may be objected that the kind of closure The Small Hand provides is a good thing for a ghost story, that it provides a shape to the story in similar ways to a crime novel identifying whodunnit. But there is such a thing as a story that's shaped too much. Questions about human relations rarely have such clear-cut answers as those of mathematics or science. (Perhaps part of the appeal of the detective genre is that it provides the kind of neatness we'd like the world to have but that it rarely does.) As it stands, The Small Hand shuts itself down like a theorem proved: finish it, and you know everything. It's a book that demands to be read, but that gives no reason to be re-read.

Graham Sleight lives in London, U.K. He is editor of Foundation, and writes for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Locus, and Science Fiction Studies.



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