Book Review: The Boy Who Taught the Beekeeper To Read

No reader of Country Life who enjoys Susan Hill’s My Week column will need to be told twice to buy this book. Yet many people amused by her reports from her cottage in Gloucestershire may be unprepared for what they will find.

These nine stories deal with loss, evoked with tender but unflinching precision. All show a master of her art at the very top of her form. The settings vary wildly: a fairground, a country house, a wintry town in an eastern European country, a smart London restaurant. It is not always clear in what time they are set, but although they evoke a world in which little boys wear long shorts, people listen to the ‘wireless’ and the Iron Curtain is still raised, the effect is oddly timeless; these are not period pieces.

This eases the way Miss Hill moves between past and present, as she shows how memory attaches itself to small incidents: the smashing of a teapot, the return of a handkerchief, the purchase of a brooch – that will resonate through entire lifetimes.

Almost all the stories deal with the relationships between children and adults, often their parents. Susan Hill intensely re-creates childhood emotions. She puts this skill to virtuoso use in ‘The Punishment’, in which a group of small boys take revenge for the death of one of their fellows by damaging an image of Christ. In the title story, a child is unwittingly in control; by teaching his aunt’s handyman to read his name, he destroys this adult’s innocence. In ‘Sand’, an angry and unloving mother is uncharacteristically kind to a boy with sand in his eye. It is a story that, like many of the others, touches lightly on the unknowableness of others, and thus, perhaps, on the essential loneliness of us all.

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