Monday 12 October 2009

Hilly Region

As you'll have read, I'm rather a fan of Howards End is on the Landing - and it sent me off in pursuit of other Susan Hill books. I had read The Battle for Gullywith, which was ok, but nothing to set my reading pulse into overdrive... but now I want more and more. Spotting that The Beacon was just coming into paperback, I gave Vintage Press an email... well, they didn't reply, and I gave up the idea, but then the book arrived so somebody must have read the email... thank you Mysterious Lovely Person at Vintage Press.

I'd had my eye on The Beacon for a while, mostly because of the stunning cover (Susan Hill does have some good fortune with these, does she not?) and because the premise sounds interesting. Essentially, it's a response to the vogue for childhood misery memoirs. Made famous by David Pelzer and his A Child Called It, the genre has seemingly thousands o
f titles, all with more or less the same cover - a white background with a sepia-child on it. Three were written by people from a family who grew up in my village, in fact. Frankly, I haven't the smallest idea why anybody publishes or reads these. I completely understand why people write them - it must be a great catharsis - but my only experience, with Pelzer's first book, left me feeling voyeuristic. Many of them have been written, but I think Susan Hill's novelistic response is unusual, maybe even unique.

The Prime family live in a small North Country village, in an old farmhouse called The Beacon. The narrative moves between two time frames - we see Colin, May, Frank, and Berenice as they grow up - and we see May, still living at The Beacon years later, dealing with the death of their mother. As one strand follows the childre
n's gradual maturing, moving away from home to marriage or college or the city, the other strand shows the same family on the other side of a life-changing event. Not the death of their mother Bertha - that is simply the catalyst for the novel's action - but the book Frank published about their childhood. The Cupboard Under The Stairs tells of his childhood or neglect, torture, and misery - at the hands of his parents, and even his siblings.

Except none of it is true... or is it? Though the other children - now grown-up - come together in horror and denial, yet the doubt which spreads throughout their
community is also planted in all of their minds. A very faint doubt, but doubt nonetheless. But for the most part, when the doubt does not assail them, they cannot understand the motives their brother had:

How can you grow up with someone from birth and know nothing about them, she thought, share parents and brother and sister with them, share a house, rooms, a table, holidays, play, illnesses, games and not know them?

The Beacon is a very clever, subtle novella. Like many short books, it packs a more powerful punch than a longer book could have done. The emotions of the characters are never over the top, but understated and quietly devastating. Hill wisely doesn't ruin the effect by dwelling on Frank's imagined torture - it is not that kind of book. Instead it is a novella driven by characters' relationships with one another, and how much in them is unvoiced and unvoiceable. Hill also has the power to make the final few pages of a book - indeed, final few words - make you gasp out loud, and want to start the book all over again. Though I don't love this book in the way that I love Howards End is on the Landing, that is because The Beacon is a book to be admired and appreciated, rather than loved - I'm definitely pleased I revisited Susan Hill, as I feel there's a lot more for me to discover. Next up is In the Springtime of the Year.

Suggestions for more, please?


  1. Simon,

    For me it would have to be Strange Meeting, I'm the King of the Castle and The Woman in Black (but read the latter with the light on - v v scarey!).

    I also remember admiring Air and Angels, although I haven't re-read that one, whereas the ones mentioned above are old favourites.

    Carol N

  2. I've read almost no Susan Hill though I too read Gullywith. I really should have a go and this does sound interesting, I must say. And I suppose I will get to Howards End... before too long!

  3. I'm planning to read The woman in black around the end of the month for Halloween time - Vintage are sending me a copy but it seems to have disappeared into the Royal Mail Bermuda Triangle surrounding North Oxford...

  4. I have a copy of Air and Angels which I want to read. I felt there was a blackness about Hill's treatment of children that is intriguing in many ways, but offputting in a few others. Sometimes there can be something deeply troubling and dark about her representation of them, as if they were easily in touch with evil. I don't know whether that comes out in The Beacon?

  5. I bought In The Springtime of the Year from a charity shop in Ripon on my holiday last week because I vaguely remembered someone had bought it and said it was supposed to be very good - now I see it was you!

    I can't wait to read HEiOTL - when it eventually arrives - and then discover more of Susan Hill's fiction. I've read The Woman in Black and have had Mrs De Winter on my shelf for ages...I have a feeling I am going to like her an awful lot!

  6. I too recommend The Woman in Black and I have The Man in the Picture lined up for later in the month (as well as HEiotL this weekend).

  7. Oh how bizarre I literally got my hands on a (cheap) hardback of this over the weekend and am now itching to read it even more, maybe after the next Wilkie Collins.

    I am a big fan of Susan's work and I would give one of her ghost stories a go next. In fact watch this space as I will be giving one away very soon! Glad you are loving her so!

  8. What a curious subject, but having read Susan Hill's crime series I can see this coming from her. I really liked those books, but I don't know that I would suggest them to you (knowing your tastes).

  9. I keep looking at the woman in black, but having being really underwhelmed by the man in the picture last year have never got round to it. This holloween might be the prod I need in that direction.

  10. Simon, a little off topic (sorry!) but I wanted to say that I finally received my copies of Miss Hargreaves and Katherine Mansfield's Selected Stories. I couldn't wait to get my hands on these books after reading your reviews, and with a little luck I'll soon have some free time to actually read them. I am of course ready to love them! Thanks for the great tips,


  11. Simon, I can understand why Tara is slightly hesitant to recommend Susan Hill's crime books to you. Regular readers of your blog get a very distinct impression that you are seldom impressed by fiction written any more recently that World War II! However, I have no such hesitation. I think you might like the series for the following reasons:

    -The lead character is called Simon Serailler, and not only that but he is a talented amateur artist, so that's two things the pair of you have in common.
    -The books are set in a fictional midland cathedral city, with the life of the cathedral featuring prominently.
    -The series is almost as much about the Serailler family as it is about the crimes under investigation. I think you might like this close-knit clan.
    -The books tackle big moral issues, not least euthanasia.

    Added to all that they are, as you might expect, excellently written.

  12. Her ghost stories - Woman in Black reduced me to a gibbering wreck. And I love the Simon Serrailer detective novels.

  13. I agree with all the other mentions of The Woman in Black! Didn't she mention that she was writing another ghost story just before she stopped blogging?? Do you know the title of that one?

  14. I think Susan Hill is a wonderful writer. The Woman in Black is really scary and although I enjoyed reading 'The Man in the Picture' I didn't find it as scary as Woman in Black. I recently read The Beacon - I couldn't put it down although I didn't really warm to the characters I still loved the way it was written. My favourites are the Simon Serailler novels.

  15. All of her writing is wonderful and I have read most of her books. "Airs and Angels", and "Strange Meeting" are both very good. The Simon Serralier stories are something to be anticipated and relished!


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