The Red Beach Hut by Lynn Michell

I've not had much time for reading recently, but this is the book that has been keeping me awake at night.  Absorbing from the first page, the prose is spare, conveying with the utmost delicacy the fragility of the characters’ situation and their states of mind.  Inspirational is an overused word these days, but this novel is just that. The Red Beach Hut is the story of an innocent, redemptive relationship between a man and a boy which is misinterpreted by onlookers with a prejudiced, tabloid mentality.

Abbott, the man, has crashed out of his professional role, burnt out, after being the victim of a  homophobic attack.  Neville is 8 years old and wanders the beach alone while his mother plays hostess to clients in their tiny flat - men he is afraid of  He is on the ‘at risk’ register.

The setting - an ordinary seaside town with its row of colourful beach huts along the shore - is also a character in the book - one that interacts with each of the other characters in turn. I could smell the sea, hear it crashing on the rocks as I read, and felt it echoing the ebb and flow of the narrative.

When Abbott comes to stay in the red beach hut, Neville is curious about the newcomer.  Both recognise the loneliness and isolation in the other and are drawn together. We, as readers, don’t know how the story is going to develop and feel the threat of outside pressure.  An innocent relationship can be broken so easily by the kind of prejudice and fear stirred up in this age of media frenzy.  This is the age of Trumpism, the rise of the alt-right, the media lynch mob, a world where racism, homophobia and misogyny have been normalised.  People like Abbott, Neville and his mother have a difficult time in 2017.

There's a sense of menace, right from the beginning, when Neville walks alone along the edge of the sea in the fading evening light.

'At the very end of the curved bay, a stack of sharp-tipped black rocks jutted up in groups of four and five and six.  Like sentinels marching backwards into the sea.  Water burst and broke over them, blocking Neville's way to the next smaller cove.  Only at very low tide, when the pools ran quietly, was he daring enough to walk through and around them on puddled sand while he held his breath and counted his steps because it was dangerous.  In the next cove was a gaping, echoing cave whose roof leaned out like a canopy towards the sea.  He'd been inside and shouted and heard his voice bounce back to him. If the sea ran inside too soon, he'd be trapped.' 

Neville counts everything, but is sometimes defeated. When Abbott finds Neville trying to count grains of sand and the boy turns his 'troubled grey eyes' on him and asks a question, the man's first instinct is to walk away, but:

'When he looked into the boy's face he observed and judged that the child was vulnerable, sensitive, observant and wise beyond his years.  Reading boys' faces had been his trade for a very long time and he was good at it.  In a heartbeat, Abbott was jettisoned back into one of those anonymous, grimly furnished rooms in which a truculent young person sat on the other side of a scabbed table, big trainers sticking out on the Lino floor while he searched for a small crack in a long-formed, anger-hardened shell of defence.  To offer a response to a troubled child was a habit too deeply ingrained for him to ignore.  He gave.  He helped.  He listened.  He held out a hand.  He was known among his colleagues to be one of the best.'

The Red Beach Hut is a beautifully written exploration of the relationship between a tormented man and a damaged boy. The author moves seamlessly between them. Getting inside a child’s mind isn’t easy, but Michell gives us Neville’s point of view in a way that is guileless and utterly credible.  The ending could so easily have been unsatisfactory, but it was perfect - understated and exactly right.  No spoilers! I wish there were more novels like this.

Lynn Michell is the editor of Linen Press, a small award-winning publisher featuring work by women - now the only women’s press in Britain.  She knows what makes a good novel, both in the writing and in the editing.

The Red Beach Hut is published by Inspired Quill and is available direct from the publisher or through Amazon. 


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