Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Hill's Beacon

I've written before about Susan Hill's fine Simon Serrailler series.  Perhaps along with Kate Atkinson, Hill has been one of the most successful mainstream interlopers into the crime genre.  Many of the distinctive qualities of her writing - strong characters, a powerful sense of place, an intriguing, slightly enigmatic style - lend themselves very well to crime fiction. 

Her new book, though, is something of a return to the mainstream.  The Beacon is a short, intense book - little more than a novella in length, but it leaves a powerful impression.  The book describes the Primes, a farming family who had lived for generations at The Beacon, a farmhouse in a remote part of Northern England.  May, the eldest daughter, has devoted her life to caring for her widowed mother, and the books begins at the moment of the mother's death.  We then gradually learn the history of May and her siblings - and in particular that of the estranged youngest brother, Frank. 

May, we learn, was academically gifted and won a place at London University, but was driven back home by a series of panic attacks and terrifying visions.  Her younger brother and sister, Colin and Berenice, have made unambitious but largely satisfactory lives for themselves in the local community.  Frank, silent and watchful as a child, also went to London and made a name for himself, first as a journalist and then through a 'miserylit' memoir in which he described the abuse he supposedly suffered as a child at the hands of his parents and siblings. May, Colin and Berenice are horrified by Frank's fictitious claims and, prior to their mother's death, have had no contact with their brother.

In other hands, this might have been the basis for a melodrama of claim and counter-claim.  But Hill is more interested in the restraint and repression that underpins this family - a life in which most things are left unsaid and everyone copes.  We are left to ponder on the possible links between Frank's depiction of the family and May's unexplained London panics.  We are left also,  particularly in the eerie final paragraph, to consider the possible truths - emotional if not physical - that might lie behind Franks outrageous claims.  And we are left to meditate on the nature of family life - the changing generational dynamics, the meaning of 'home', the significance of one's relationship with these unchosen others. 

It's a beautifully written book without a wasted word (although, as one reviewer has pointed out, with some odd and clearly deliberate verbal chimes which contribute to the reader's unease), intensely powerful in its depiction of both the family and the seasonal landscape around them.  In a world of blockbusters, it's refreshing to read a brief, perfectly constructed fable that carries such resonance. 


1. Maxine said...

I've been quite intrigued by this book. Thanks for the great review, I think it has tipped me into the active decision to read it! Her next Serrailer novel has been delayed, I think, as it was scheduled for this autumn but apparently no longer has a definite date.

2. Michael Walters said...

It's an intriguing book. I think anyone who's looking for definitive answers might find it slightly frustrating, but it feels like a book that will repay re-reading. There are hints and nuances in there that I haven't yet begun to fathom. Its brevity and resonance reminded me slightly of Alan Garner's 'Thursbitch' which is high praise.

On her website, Susan Hill suggests that the new Serailler will be out in March next year. She says she's working on the final chapters - I know the feeling...

3. &mpersand said...

Ooh, great review! I've only recently disovered Susan Hill (scared myself silly reading "The Man in the Picture"!) This looks to be another good one, so I'll definitely give it a try.

&... xxx

4. Michael Walters said...

Thanks very much, &...Her ghost stories are terrific - I'm assuming you've read 'The Woman in Black' but if not, you should. Her crime novels are also excellent - quite different from most crime fiction in that they're very character-driven, but they work very well.

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