NICK CUR­TIS

LIT­ER­A­TURE

The Mail on Sunday - Event - - BOOKS -

Ja­cob’s Room Is Full Of Books Su­san Hill Pro­file £12.99

In this de­light­ful book Su­san Hill re­calls a year’s worth of read­ing, set against the chang­ing sea­sons and scud­ding bird life out­side her ru­ral Nor­folk home and in­ter­laced with pen-portraits of past friends and grum­bles about mod­ern lit­er­ary life.

Hill has writ­ten 13 nov­els since 1963, sev­eral short story col­lec­tions and the highly praised Howards End Is On The

Land­ing, to which this tome is a sort of se­quel. She has known a re­mark­able ar­ray of peo­ple: John Piper, Iris Mur­doch, JB Pri­est­ley, the Duchess of Devon­shire. She even snuck in to see the Duke of Wind­sor’s body while it was ly­ing in state, three months af­ter her own fi­ancé died in 1972.

The first thing you no­tice is the clar­ity and sim­plic­ity of her prose. The sec­ond is quite how much and how widely she reads, and even rereads. Dick­ens, Nabokov, Henry James and Vir­ginia Woolf crop up, but also the con­tem­po­rary likes of Zadie Smith and Rachel Cusk. She ca­su­ally men­tions us­ing her an­nual hol­i­day in France to work her way through novel cy­cles such as Paul Scott’s Raj Quar­tet and Eve­lyn Waugh’s Sword Of Hon­our tril­ogy. She is not a snob, en­thus­ing about Robert Louis Steven­son and Ray­mond Chan­dler, and she loves chil­dren’s books and The Beano. The odd sa­cred cow gets slaugh­tered: Hill has never read Jane Eyre and thinks Jane Austen is ‘not as good as she is cracked up to be’. Through­out, she po­tently evokes the joy of dis­cov­er­ing a new au­thor or re-eval­u­at­ing a favourite, the plea­sure of sit­ting out­side on an au­tumn day wrapped up in a story. ‘Read­ing is magic. Books are magic,’ she says. She has a ‘phys­i­cal re­la­tion­ship’ with her li­brary, scrawl­ing notes, fold­ing pages, re­gret­fully let­ting go of past loves to make way for new ones. The au­thors, painters and mu­si­cians she knows or knew are vividly sketched in a few para­graphs if Hill is fond of them, diplo­mat­i­cally anonymised if not. She has the habit, not un­com­mon to those who con­sider the lit­er­ary life a vo­ca­tion, of moan­ing about it. She de­cries the snob­bery and van­ity of au­thors, the lazi­ness of stu­dents for whom her best­seller The Woman In Black is a set text, and the ma­lig­nant spread of cre­ative writ­ing cour­ses, whose ad­her­ents write to ask where she gets her ideas from. She’s not a fan of fes­ti­vals or prizes, though ad­mits she’s ben­e­fited from both. The coun­try­side and the weather are as deftly painted in as the peo­ple and the books. Born in Scar­bor­ough, Hill has lived all over the place and has a coun­try­woman’s eye for land­scape and wildlife. While she of­ten men­tions her chil­dren and grand­chil­dren, and a pre­ma­ture mid­dle daugh­ter who died, she doesn’t touch on her cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. (In 2013, Hill left her hus­band of al­most 40 years, Shake­speare scholar Stan­ley Wells, for Bar­bara Machin, who adapted her Si­mon Ser­railler crime nov­els for tele­vi­sion.) But this is not an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy: it’s a richly idio­syn­cratic mem­oir of a bib­lio­phile. Best of all, it ig­nites a pas­sion for books one hasn’t read, or even thought of. I’m now off to read The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde.

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