The Beacon – Susan Hill

Sorry for a slightly later post than normal, I actually thought I had scheduled this post to go and have only just noticed now that it hasn’t gone up. I think my brain might be slightly frazzled from the lurgy I had and a very belated spring clean to beat all spring cleans that have gone before it, and yes that includes a book cull. With the lurgy I always find I want comfortable reads or shorter ones and so I turned to a favourite author for some sickness solace and picked up ‘The Beacon’ by Susan Hill.

I have to say I love Susan Hill’s ghost stories and her Simon Serrailler crime series, her other fiction I haven’t really tried so much but with ‘The Beacon’ I was very pleased to see this is still Susan Hill on full form. I am not quite sure why I might have thought otherwise; maybe it was the fact in a way I was headed into the unknown. ‘The Beacon’ is a family drama with a difference as like a lot of Hill’s fiction, that I have read so far anyway, at the darker side of life which gives an edge to the whole novella.

As the book opens we meet May Prime who has been looking after her sick mother in the family home ‘The Beacon’ a farm in the middle of nowhere but very near a village where everyone knows you business. However when May leaves the room for some air comes back to find her mother has died. The doctor later says people often wait to die when they are alone which I had never heard before, I always thought it was only dogs and cats that did that? I digress, as May looks back over her life and indeed the family life of The Primes as a unit the tale of her siblings Colin, Berenice and particularly brother Frank starts to slowly emerge. Only hinted at from the beginning we come to learn that Frank is an unusual child, almost an outcast Prime by choice, and that as the book goes one something dark and shocking is awaiting us. What that is I would love to share, as I could discuss it till the cows come home, however you need to read the book knowing nothing to really get the benefit of all that comes after.

I am always in awe of any authors who can weave great tales, especially if they have dark twists and turns, in very few pages and draw them fully as if you had read a 700 page book instead. ‘The Beacon’, for me at least, is one such book. The characters are defined by minor actions; the sibling’s characters become all the more apparent as May reveals their childhoods, reactions to their mother’s death then enhance them. The fact you feel you have lived May’s life with her, in a matter of fifty pages, leading up to her mother’s death I thought was most impressive. Death is also a large theme in the book not only in its physicality but also in the emotions a death leaves behind be they grief, freedom or even both.

If you haven’t read Susan Hill before I think this might just be the book to give a try. In just over 150 pages she creates a fantastic story and shows her ability to create great character, atmosphere, tension and a twist or two. If you don’t like it, which I would find hard to imagine, then you have only spent an hour or two on the book – it really is that quick to read, I couldn’t put it down. Its also the kind of book you will be thinking about long after you have shut the final page.

A book that will; grab you in from the start, possibly shock you and leave you thinking. 9/10

Savidge suggests perfect prose partners;

A Start in Life by Anita Brookner – I wouldn’t naturally put Hill and Brookner together probably because I have spent most of my time reading ‘spooky Hill’ or ‘thriller Hill’ but there was something about May’s story that resonated with me in the same way Ruth did in ‘A Start in Life’ though their backgrounds are nothing alike.
The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark – If you haven’t tried many novella’s I think this might be my very favourite so far. Like with ‘The Beacon’ this is a book with a rather dark heart, that catches you out when you least expect it.

What novels of Susan Hill’s have any of you read? Which ones have you loved? What other great novella’s can you recommend, as they are sometimes something that I struggle with?


Filed under Books of 2010, Chatto & Windus, Review, Susan Hill

19 responses to “The Beacon – Susan Hill

  1. I thought this was fantastic – as you say she weaves a very great tale, and in such a small number of pages. I’ve read The mist in the mirror, and the Woman in Black, but none of her detective novels.

    • I love Susan Hill’s work, and this is a new favourite. Not that anything could beat The Woman in Black but I think thats because its been a favourite for such a long time.

  2. gaskella

    While I’m not such a fan of short stories, I do enjoy novellas and short novels. This one was great – when I got Susan Hill to sign my copy last year, I said how much I’d enjoyed it and she enigmatically replied – “It’s an odd little thing isn’t it.”

    Another short novel I enjoyed last year was Madame Verona comes down the hill by Dmitri Verhulst, trans from the Dutch but set in a French village. Also ‘A life’s music’ by Andrei Makine – set in Stalin’s Russia.

  3. I love novellas, possibily my favourite form, especially one which packs a punch like The Beacon – I thought it was brilliant. Can I recommend In the Springtime of the Year, also by Hill and also short? It’s a beautiful book.

    And now I’m really keen to read The Driver’s Seat… off to hunt at the library

    • I have The Springtime of the Year on the TBR and its one I have been meaning to give a whirl for ages. With your recommendation its gone higher up the list so thank you for telling me thats a goody.

  4. I’ve always been intrigued with Hill because of her dark side (I like those kinds of books!) but I could also definitely go for this. I get so distracted during the summer, and these little but impactful books are just what I need.

  5. Deb

    I haven’t read any of her ghost stories, but I’ve read all of Hill’s Simon Serailler mysteries that are currently available here in the States. I didn’t care for the first one (THE VARIOUS HAUNTS OF MEN) and was dislinclined to read the rest but for very positive reviews on some of my favorite book blogs. I’m glad I did because the others in the series are much better–Simon isn’t so much of a pompous ass and the people around him go through their own changes and take up quite a bit of the storylines. Also, Hill, like Kate Atkinson, is less concerned with the small mysteries of “who dunnit” than the big mysteries of why we are here and how we relate to others.

    • No I would agree with you on this Deb (we concur on a lot) I actually gave up on The Various Haunts of Men and then tried again a few months later and enjoyed it more. I have grown to like them more and more the more I have read. I have yet to read The Shadows in the Streets though.

  6. Eva

    I’ve done two novella reading challenges now, so I have some recommendations for you! (You might’ve already read some of them though.)

    “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe” by Carson McCuller (soooo good; American Southern Gothic at its best)

    anything by Colette 😉

    “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad (I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I found it both thought-provoking and readable)

    “The Uncommon Reader” by Alan Bennett (I find it hard to believe you haven’t read this one, but just in case)

    anything by Banana Yoshimoto (but Kitchen, which usually has two novellas together, is as good a place to start as any!)

    Disquiet by Julia Leigh (another Gothic feeling one with great writing style)

    “Raise the Red Lantern” by Su Tong (I wasn’t a big fan of the other two novellas it was published with in my edition, but this one is marvelous especially with its 1920s China setting)

    The Girl with the Golden Shoes by Colin Channer (a Caribbean story with a definite kind of fairy tale feel to it)

    anything by Jacqueline Woodson

    Whew! I still love my chunksters, but my appreciation for novellas has definitely increased over the past couple of years. 🙂

  7. I have The Pure in Heart on my TBR shelf that I picked up to try Hill’s fiction right after I finished HEIOTL (that I loved!). You’ve got me moving it to the top of the stack and very curious about The Beacon. “Short, but packing a bunch” is very near and dear to me at the moment as my reading time is shrinking. As always, thanks for the review and recommendations.

  8. One quick trip to the library later, and I have The Driver’s Seat ready to read! Enormous font, about thirty words to a page…

  9. Great review. I love The Driver’s Seat. Maybe A Start in Life will be my next novella choice.

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