Hill’s voice is one of wit and verve, punctuated by the occasional grumpiness when faced with attitudes incomprehensible to her. Once again, in the follow-up to her Howard’s End is on the Landing, we’re fully aware of just how full of books this particular ‘room’ is. Hill’s ‘reading jags’ sound fantastically energetic and, once an author has caught her attention, she acquires piles of their volumes. No wonder she also makes repeated trips to her local charity shops – she is clearly more able to shed books than I am. Her range of reading matter is formidable (it’s also quite reassuring that she flicks through Grazia too…).
Tracking books, birds and the weather through the year, this was a joy to read. I loved her discussions of children’s books in particular. She also reflects on her own work and its reception – I was amused at her response to teachers and students who ask her to pin down the essentials of The Woman in Black for use in their essays and exams – and is honest and direct in her opinions of other writers’ output. She’s also staunchly supportive of other writers – sparked into buying Rachel Cusk’s books after reading about the abuse Cusk has faced following the publication of her memoir.
Like Christopher Somerville’s book last week, my reading of Hill’s year has reminded me how little I know about the natural world, how I am lacking names for things. Hill’s observations about the wildlife around her work as an effective companion to her notes on the cultural world she also lives in. She slips from thoughts concerning Hardy’s achievements to documenting her sighting of oystercatchers and redshanks. There’s a marvellous sense of jumbling up all the elements of her life, creating an immediacy and intimacy of tone. The overall structure of ‘the year of reading’ (the book’s subtitle) lends a coherence, and I enjoyed her discussions about books for dark nights, books for Christmas, the implications of ‘beach reads’. I was also reminded that, although this volume is about Hill as a reader, Hill as a writer pins down images with brilliant accuracy and imagination: ‘Raining. Sky like the inside of a saucepan.’
She says at one point that recommending books is dangerous – but such is the scope of her own reading that I can’t help but compile a list of all the novels I must get my hands on now. My TBR pile is already taller than me, but, well, if they’re good enough for Susan Hill …
The Devil’s Own Work by Alan Judd
The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham
Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov
Corduroy by Adrian Bell
Akenfield by Ronald Blythe
The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning
Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym
The Sportswriter by Rihard Ford
The Tiger in the Smoke by Marjorie Allingham
This is a rich and wonderful account of the best way to spend a year. Heartily recommended.