As anyone who has followed my blog for any length of time will know, I am a big fan of Susan Hill’s works. Therefore when I spotted ‘The Boy Who Taught The Beekeeper to Read’ at the library, a title I hadn’t been aware of before (and isn’t it a brilliant title), I snapped it up. It wasn’t until I got home that I realised it was a collection of short stories.
Before I talk about the collection I should explain the slightly eccentric way I read short stories. Firstly I don’t read them like I would a novel, not just because of the order (which I will come to in a moment) I read it but because I might read one and not another for a few days or read three separately in one day by whim and one every evening after – there’s no rules. I also don’t read them in the order they have been put (apologies to the authors and editors who probably put a lot of time and thought into this) in the collection. I read the longest first followed by the shortest, then I read them in order except I always leave the title tale until the very end. The theory behind this last part is that the title tale is probably the best and leaves the book on a high note for me, it maybe this tale also reflects the overall feeling of a collection, though by no means always the case. Now that’s out the way I can get on with telling you how I felt about this collection and possibly the reasons why…
If I were to go with an overall theme of ‘The Boy Who Taught The Beekeeper to Read’ it would be death and loss. This therefore gives the whole book a rather melancholic tone. It’s not a gloomy collection but it’s not all singing and dancing (yes, that’s a nod to her 1974 collection of short stories I have in Mount TBR). What we have is therefore a collection of tales at often pivotal, and emotional points in characters lives, their current situation or circumstances having been caused, in the main, being through deaths to varying degrees.
Because I started with ‘Father, Father’ and ‘Sand’ I think I was a little wrong footed from the off if I am honest. Both these stories of of mothers deaths and the effect on the daughter and unfortunately felt like the same story only one had been elongated. Therefore when I read ‘Elizabeth’ which once more brought up mothers and daughters I put the book down for a while. I am glad I returned though as after this hiccup, mainly my fault for reading in the wrong order I am sure, the stories became more varied and I started to get sucked into the atmosphere and tone of the book further.
You see the tales ‘The Punishment’, ‘The Brooch‘ and ‘Moving Messages’ reminded me that Susan Hills writing has a certain quiet brooding about it, this is also the case in both her Simon Serrailer crime series and famous ghost stories yet because they are longer there is a meatier side too, and sometimes with these short stories this is done so delicately that initially you think ‘and?’ but should you take some time out and have some space from them and the characters, atmospheres and settings they grow on you somewhat. ‘Need’ with its circus setting did this particularly well.
The last two stories I read had the most punch, maybe they felt the most modern and almost instantly had an overflowing number of things to say? The last story in the collection ‘Antonyin’s’ (the only story set outside England) confused me initially, as a man and woman unknown to each other sit in a restaurant day after day staring until she asks him to marry her, but the twist that came moved me. The title tale of ‘The Boy Who Taught The Beekeeper to Read’ was the one that blew me away. It’s not the longest, in some ways it’s the most simple of ideas – a young boy living in a mansion befriends ‘the staff’ and teaches him to read yet how long can this friendship last, actually choked me up and it has resonated with me the most since, and not just because I read it last.
I cannot say ‘The Boy Who Taught The Beekeeper to Read’ is the best short story collection I’ve ever read because some of it was a little too short, a little too quiet and peeter out too quickly but overall it’s beautifully written and in parts packs an emotional punch amongst its brooding nature. Some people may find its quiet style a little old fashioned, I liked this, but regardless I would urge everyone to read this collection for the title story alone. I think it could become one of my favourite short stories and shows just why I am such a fan of Susan Hill’s writing overall.