Rather shockingly, until late last year I had never read anything by Susan Hill. I finally got around to reading The Woman in Black, and was enchanted by its spareness and economy with words. I very soon went out and bought her newest novel, The Beacon, and I’m pleased to report that I absorbed it in a single sitting last week. It is a short novel (154 pages) and the type is relatively large, but I would stress that my devouring it was as much to do with Susan Hill’s wonderful writing as it was to do with its brevity.
Four children grow up on a remote farm in the North Country: Mary, Colin, Frank, and Bereniece. Their lives are unremarkable in as much as there are trials and tribulations, but nothing to mark them out. Mary is intelligent, and goes to university in London, only to be strunk down by frightening terrors and returns home to the farm. Colin marries and leaves for another farm on the other side of town. Bereniece is a feisty, manipulative child, but one who grows into a good, if unconventional (by the family’s standards) woman, also happily married to an older man. Frank, though, is an odd child, who ‘did little speaking but a great deal of staring out of large green-grey, slightly bulbous eyes’. Frank, who in later life becomes a journalist in London, and who turns out to be anything but frank, when he writes a sensational misery memoir about his abusive parents and equally abusive siblings. The book goes on to be a film, and he is suddenly very famous. Except none of the childhood abuses happened. He made it all up.
The novel deals with the death of the matriarch of the family, who Mary has spent her life looking after. The siblings closed ranks after Frank’s betrayal, never commenting in public, thus fueling Frank’s paranoia and creeping guilt. They have put up with years of people talking behind their backs, and years of ostracision, but have never hit back, as angry as they are. The main strength of Hill’s straightforward but tense writing style is the way she creates the atmosphere between the siblings, and between the siblings and the rest of the world. Much of the book is concerned with the internal life of its main characters, and here Susan Hill’s insight is astonishingly good. The swirling mixture of anger, fear, and on Frank’s part guilt, interspersed with flashbacks from their childhoods work together incredibly well.
And then, right at the end, she places that little seed of doubt. What if it wasn’t made up? Or was it? We know that Frank can no longer ‘identi[fy] what [is] true and what he invented’. So can we be so sure?
Unsettling, brilliant, sparse, a just fantastic little gem of a novel.