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 of 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 children’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?