A Gradual Ruin

Publisher: Anchor Canada
From acclaimed novelist and Governor General’s Award-winning poet Robert Hilles comes a haunting story about the desperate choices made in wartime, and lives affirmed or shattered in a moment.

In the final, chaotic days of the Second World War, Tommy, a young Canadian soldier, is separated from his unit and lost in enemy territory. Seeking shelter among the rotting haystacks and devastated farmhouses of the German countryside, he follows a cry to a bloodied and terrified girl. When he decided to save her from starvation, or worse, Tommy’s life is forever changed.

And in 1960s northern Ontario, fourteen-year-old Judith discovers what her mother, Alice, has already learned: that when circumstances and frustrated desire force you from home, sometimes all you can do is begin life afresh. Impetuous, intelligent and suspicious, Judith is on the verge of bringing old mistakes into a new world.

These lives are woven into a story at once grand and intimate. Spanning continents and generations, A Gradual Ruin is an engrossing account of lives damaged in the present those lost in the past. With patience and empathy, Robert Hilles vividly captures the ache for the missing parent or lover, and the guilt for those imperfectly loved, or unintentionally betrayed.

From Stalin's gulags to the farms and paper mills of northern Ontario, A Gradual Ruin probes a life's purpose, and a heart's responsibility in a world far beyond our power to control. In the theatre of war as within the confines of family, our lives often turn not on our goodwill or our careful plans, but on the caprice of fate.

He crawled a good distance into the forest before he heard the whimpering. At first, he thought he imagined it, fatigue playing tricks on him. But as he moved forward, the sound grew stronger. Worried that he was stumbling into a trap, he thought for a moment about heading back, but his heart drew him to the sound against his better judgment. He inched closer, and the sound became more clearly that of a crying child. Near the source, the bush opened up, and he saw someone lying in the dirt, so covered in filth and blood that at first he couldn't make out whether it was a boy or girl. He pulled himself to within a few feet and the sobbing stopped. The girl had seen him, but she made no attempt to flee or defend herself. Tommy reached out a shaking hand to brush aside the dirt and mud, and she screamed so loudly he clasped his hand around her mouth, but she bit him and he had to let her go. Her hair clung to her head in matted, muddied clumps. She was only thirteen or fourteen. -- from A Gradual Ruin

From the Hardcover edition.



Tommy washed his hands and lay two slices of dark rye bread on the cutting board. He wasn’t sure that Judith would like such heavy bread, but the bakery — all the stores, in fact — were already closed and it was all he had. He was even less certain that she’d like whatever...
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"Compelling, emotionally engaging, and intellectually stimulating. The novel ends in a way that manages to be inevitable, surprising and deeply satisfying at the same time: a terrific accomplishment. . . . The story becomes so good, its telling so strong and transparent, that all artifice drops away. . . . Rewarding and enlightening."
National Post

"Very much like Charles Frazier's novel Cold Mountain. . . . Hilles writes in a sparse, careful style that makes everything that happens seem not only real but inevitable."
Gazette (Montreal)

"A tightly written, muscular epic."
Edmonton Journal

"In a precise, laconic style, Hilles spans large gaps in time and space. He successfully juggles his parallel story lines and juxtaposes the grand sweep of history with the small events that make up family life. . . . A Gradual Ruin seems destined to earn him a national reputation."
Calgary Herald

"This is a novel about individuals who try to come to terms with the past. The results are quite remarkable. Graphic and mesmerizing in its detail . . . Unforgettable."
—Alistair MacLeod

Praise for Robert Hilles:
"From memory, loss, and one man’s ordinary daily life, he builds a small intimacy for us to enter. . . Amazing honesty and grace."
—Lorna Crozier, Winner of the Governor General’s Award for Poetry

From the Hardcover edition.