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This week I passed the 100 books read this year landmark, and numbers 99 and 101 were both cracking short novels…

The Beacon by Susan Hill is a claustrophobic and suspenseful family drama which leaves you wondering what you believed in the tale. It tells of four siblings, Colin, May, Frank and Berenice who were born and bred at ‘The Beacon’, the house on the hill. Colin and Berenice marry but stay locally; May tries being a student in the city but is drawn back to her home and stays to look after their ageing parents; but Frank – well he escapes. Life continues, father John dies and their mother Bertha grows more and more dependent on May. Then something happens which shocks the three siblings to their core – leaving them reeling in horror that Frank has written a memoir about his family and everyone else believes it to be the truth. (All this you can find out from the blurb by the way.)

The writing is economical, and the structure of the story, starting at Bertha’s death with frequent flashbacks, is such that you know something happened, but it builds up over half the book’s length before you find out for sure what it was. Many other events then fall into place – but not all, for Hill is an author renowned for her playfulness with her readers. There is a degree of ambiguity that leaves you asking more questions than are answered, there are no easy happy endings for this family.

This second dose of Susan Hill coming after this one has left me looking forward to seeing her even more at an author event in Abingdon next week.

* * * * *

Now we turn to Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill by Dimitri Verhulst, trans David Colmer.

Madame Verona lives at the top of a hill on the outskirts of an isolated village. A musician, she has lived alone since the death of her composer husband, with just stray dogs for company. While she has a stock of wood to burn she feels no need to rejoin the small but dwindling community in the village while she waits for the luthier to make her a cello – it will take twenty years for the wood to season. The men of the village rather wish she’d chosen a different course, for there are few women in these parts. Eventually the cello is finished, she plays it for her dead husband, and then, when the last log is gone, she comes down the hill knowing she’ll never climb back up.

This little novel is a real gem, written by a Belgian and superbly translated. In between the melancholy tale of Madame Verona’s life are rich and humorous episodes of village life. A village where prowess in Table Football is taken really seriously, and where a cow can be elected Mayor. It is a story crying out to be made into an arty film – a great little love story with a superb backdrop – I loved it. (Book supplied by the Amazon Vine programme; 9/10)

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