The truth hurts

<strong>The Beacon</strong>

<em>Susan Hill</em>

Chatto & Windus, 160pp, £10

“I dedicate this book to every boy who was ever made to suffer in the cupboard under the stairs,” Frank Prime solemnly intones in his book, a misery memoir recounting an abused childhood in an isolated farmhouse. It is a bestseller, and Frank receives sympathy from round after round of interviewers, but as far as his siblings are concerned, the harsh upbringing he describes never happened.

Focusing on the Prime family rather than Frank himself, The Beacon is an original take on misery lit that questions the genre’s relationship with fact. Where does hardship end and abuse begin? (Somewhere beyond wearing hand-me-down shoes – one of the abuses Frank describes being forced to endure – you would think.) The unreliability of memory is raised, too. Frank’s account of his childhood may be dubious, but his elder sister May’s version of their past – “nothing, nothing at all but contentedness”, seems equally unlikely, especially when the hallucinations and panic attacks that hounded her in her youth come to light.

It is a clever and probing novel, but it has one major flaw: getting to Hill’s subtle analysis means wading through the Primes’ unsalacious, but unremittingly bleak, youth. Though stylishly written, it’s still a fairly dreary read.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess