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The Beacon by Susan Hill
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The Beacon by Susan Hill

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Chosen for February by Simon  Thomas of Stuck-in-a-book

The Beacon  by Susan Hill 

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 now has seemingly thousands of titles, 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.
            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.

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