A Gradual Ruin


306 pages
ISBN 0-385-65961-X
DDC C813'.54





Reviewed by Matt Hartman

Matt Hartman is a freelance editor and cataloguer, running Hartman Cataloguing, Editing and Indexing Services.


About midway through poet/novelist Hilles’s second work of fiction,
the reader is convinced that little joy will come to the characters. So
pervasive is the sense of doom in the story that Hilles himself told a
Calgary interviewer, “I worry that people will see the book just as a
series of tragedies. People focus on the darkness,” he later
qualified, “but it’s not really a dark story. People like Tommy make
me rejoice.”

Tommy’s experiences as a Canadian soldier during the Second World
War, as a captive of first the Germans and then the Soviets, are full of
stark and horrific experiences—experiences whose starkness and horror
only increase with the sparseness of the prose. Hilles alternates

the story of Tommy with another narrative line, that of Judith, a
teenage girl in Winnipeg whose emotional problems are misunderstood by
her single mother. Where Tommy is again and again amazed at the cruelty
of his fellow men, Judith is busy trying to understand her place in the

Hilles won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 1994 (for his
collection Cantos from a Small Room) and his fiction reflects a poet’s
skill and sensibility. When Judith’s father dies, her ennui reaches
the point of crisis. “‘Leave me alone,’ she wanted to scream at
anyone who came near. With her door closed, she listened to the murmur
of her mother’s voice filling that outer space. Judith knew that some
people talked to the dead and told them what happened each day, and she
wished she could talk to Peter that way, but each time she tried to, she
felt silly and stopped.” Inevitably, the lives of Tommy and Judith
intersect, and it is in this final chapter that Hilles’s writing
talents are most evident. When the man and the girl slowly open up to
one another, gradually winning each other’s trust, something painful
is peeled away from them both. This is a successful novel.


Hilles, Robert., “A Gradual Ruin,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 22, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/16267.