Like many Susan Hill fans, her bleak and devastatingly heartfelt writing was forced upon me at school. For me though, it wasn't her Somerset Maughan Award-winning novel, I'm the King of the Castle or her chilling ghost story, then long-standing West End play, The Woman in Black. It was a quiet collection of short stories, written in 1973, called A Bit of Singing and Dancing. Despite my reluctance to reading a series of tales about stiff upper-lipped middle-aged and elderly characters I believed I would have nothing in common with, I was instantly lured into the tormented lives of these losers, loners, and misfits, and impassioned by the harsh purity of the stories.
Now, having taken in the highs of Hill's The Woman in Black and The Mist in the Mirror, and the lows of the frankly dull, The Service of Clouds and Mrs de Winter (her ill-advised sequel to du Maurier's Rebecca) I feel that we have come full circle, with The Boy Who Taught the Beekeeper to Read, another small selection of short stories about loners, losers, and misfits.
Of the nine tales in this collection there are Hill's tried and tested themes of bereavement, loneliness, disfigurement and the lurch between childhood and adulthood, are played out against the backdrop of remote rural communities, bleak unnamed towns, or off-season seaside resorts. Father, Father is about two adult sisters trying to come to terms with their father's new companion after their mother's death. Sand is about a random act of kindness that a girl's brutal mother carries out for a stranger. In The Punishment two young boys try to think of the most dreadful crime, only for no one to notice when they finally carry it out. It is this theme that threads through many of the stories: the numbling disappointment we feel when things don't quite work out, the pent-up frustration that makes us want to scream but we keep bottled up because we're so terribly, terribly British. The most heartwrenching example is the titular story, the ending of which is so devastating in its anti-climax, it is reminscent of William Trevor at his most finest.
She doesn't tick every box though. Some of the stories are so subtle they simply petter out, and Antonyin's, the only tale not set in England, is a bum note at the end of the collection with a final twist that is - well - quite frankly, naff. The descriptions - though mostly beautifully imaginative - are sometimes too simplistic, jarring with the more elegant prose. With this in mind, I found the collection a little disappointing in comparison to A Bit of Singing and Dancing. However, Susan Hill is still a remarkable storyteller, delving into the psyche of everyday people and plucking out inner demons for us all to see, and sympathise with. With literary-lovers bemoaning the death of the short story, it is good to see that in Susan Hill's hands, there is life in the genre yet.