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‘Jacob’s Room is Full of Books’ by Susan Hill ***

I was so excited to read Susan Hill’s second reading diary, Jacob’s Room is Full of Books, particularly as I so enjoyed her first, Howards End is On the Landing.  Released in 2017, Hill has set out to chart ‘a year of her life through the books she has read, re-read or returned to the shelf’.  I was expecting a similarly warming tone to the first instalment, as well as the excuse to fill up my to-read list with dozens more titles.

‘When we spend so much of our time immersed in books, who’s to say where reading ends and living begins?’ asks the book’s blurb.  In Jacob’s Room is Full of Books, Hill shows how ‘the two are impossibly and gloriously wedded.’  Her reading diary promises to be ‘full of wry observations and warm humour, as well as strong opinions freely aired…  a rare and wonderful insight into the rich world of reading from one of Britain’s most distinguished authors.’  The structure of Jacob’s Room is Full of Books is made up of small sections, all of which are arranged chronologically and slotted into monthly chapters, aiming to give one an insight into an entire year of reading.9781781250815

Hill opens by discussing audiobooks and ebooks, and what she believes to be the strengths and pitfalls of both.  She then touches briefly on what she thinks makes a bestseller, a theme which she comes back to again and again as the book goes on.  More themes along these lines, which tend to become a little repetitive, are Hill’s telling us about her own writing career, and giving advice to aspiring writers.

My main qualm with Jacob’s Room is Full of Books is that there is a lot of non-reading-related content throughout.  As opposed to Howards End is on the Landing, which is wonderfully bookish from beginning to end, there were quite a few points in the book when I wished Hill would stop mentioning her famous friends – often for little reason – and dig a little deeper into literature.  She is concerned throughout with those whom she knows from the upper echelons of society, and various members of the royal family make cameos in sections which have nothing to do with reading.  She does include quotes from other authors, or from books, but these rarely feel integrated well; rather, it takes one a little while to recalibrate and realise what Hill is doing.  She is, as the blurb says, opinionated in this book, far more so than in the first.

Regardless, there are some nice, and relatable, paragraphs about book collecting, and various tomes which she has returned to over the years.  A section which I particularly enjoyed takes place in February, when Hill feels the compulsion to reorganise her bookshelves.  She writes: ‘Not the weather for standing around more than two minutes admiring the spring flowers, the weather for clearing out bookshelves.  If we ever leave this house, we will not want to start doing it as the removal men are at the door.  I thought I had cleared out all the books I would ever need to lose five years ago, but books breed.  They beget second copies because you have mislaid the first and buy another, the day before you find the first.’  Another piece of writing which came across as warm and nostalgic involved Hill’s reminiscences about the joy of Ladybird books, after finding a box of forgotten titles from their catalogue in her attic.  Particularly given this, her lack of sentimentality in keeping books surprised me; I imagine it is quite rare with regard to other avid readers and people who call themselves collectors of books to have no connection with very few physical objects they’ve read, and have the ability to get rid of them with no problems.

The book, overall, has a disjointed feeling to it, particularly with regard to the first few months of the year.  In February, for instance, Hill begins her musings by talking about her greengrocer and how cheap it is to buy vegetables, and then she goes on to ask herself why she didn’t like fairytales as a child.  The next sections detail, in order, Hill’s spotting of some herons whilst out on a walk, a wish for snow, and a website featuring many lists of five books, all of which have been recommended by different people.  There are no connecting bridges to link the content; rather, it feels more like random day-to-day scribblings which have been taken straight out of a journal without much thought to how they fit together.  Stylistically, Jacob’s Room is Full of Books is easy to dip in and out of in this manner, but when reading it all in one go, it does feel a little awkward.

I did enjoy Hill’s forays into nature writing, and felt that these worked well.  However, I cannot help but think the book may have been stronger had it been marketed in less of a misleading way as A Year of Reading, and more as a year in the life exercise.  Perhaps half, or maybe 60%, of the book is actually related to reading.  Some months do include more of Hill’s thoughts about reading and writing, but there are far less recommendations here than in the first volume.  The tone feels quite different too, and this is nowhere near as much of a cosy read as the first.

The balance in Jacob’s Room is Full of Books does not feel quite right, and some of the sections are so brief that they feel awkward to read.  I had hoped that it would be a continuation of Howards End is on the Landing, but it does not fill that criteria in its execution.  I found this volume disappointing on the whole; not what I thought, or hoped, it would be.  However, Jacob’s Room is Full of Books is still a quiet, meditative read, particularly with regard to the nature she captures, and the slower sections about literature.

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Two Novels: ‘In the Springtime of the Year’ and ‘The Tidal Zone’

In the Springtime of the Year by Susan Hill ** 9780099570486
‘After just a year of close, loving marriage, Ruth has been widowed. Her beloved husband, Ben, has been killed in a tragic accident and Ruth is left, suddenly and totally bereft. Unable to share her sorrow and grief with Ben’s family, who are dealing with their pain in their own way, Ruth becomes increasingly isolated, burying herself in her cottage in the countryside as the seasons change around her. Only Ben’s young brother Jo, is able to reach out beyond his own grief, to offer Ruth the compassion which might reclaim her from her own devastating unhappiness. The result is a moving, lyrical exploration of love and loss, of grief and mourning, from a masterful writer.’

I find Hill’s novels a little hit and miss; this particular tome falls somewhere close to the latter.  It wasn’t awful, but I did find it a touch lacklustre.  Whilst it is written well, there are rather a lot of repetitions with regard to the protagonist Ruth’s thoughts and feelings, and I felt little sympathy for her with regard to her sudden thrust into widowhood because she just didn’t feel realistic.  It didn’t quite live up to its interesting premise, and a lot of the secondary characters were incredibly shadowy.  I think I might just stick to Hill’s non-fiction in future.

 

The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss *****
9781783783076‘Adam is a stay-at-home dad who is also working on a history of the bombing and rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. He is a good man and he is happy. But one day, he receives a call from his daughter’s school to inform him that, for no apparent reason, fifteen-year-old Miriam has collapsed and stopped breathing. In that moment, he is plunged into a world of waiting, agonising, not knowing. The story of his life and the lives of his family are rewritten and re-told around this shocking central event, around a body that has inexplicably failed. In this exceptionally courageous and unflinching novel of contemporary life Sarah Moss goes where most of us wouldn’t dare to look, and the result is riveting – unbearably sad, but also miraculously funny and ultimately hopeful.

The Tidal Zone was a highly anticipated read for me, as it was the last outstanding Moss I had to read.  I love her writing, and have been engrossed in every single one of her books to date.  I am so pleased to say that The Tidal Zone was the cherry on rather a delicious cake.  I love the way in which the novel’s plot circles around a singular moment, drifting back and forth in time.  From the first, Moss’ writing is beautifully poetic, and the entirety of the novel is profound and compelling.  Moss masterfully ties so much together here – history, biology, geography, relationships, the NHS, and the Second World War – whilst making it an unfailing human novel.  Wonderfully paced, with an authentic narrative voice and an achingly realistic cast of characters at its heart, The Tidal Zone is a sheer masterpiece.

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‘After Me Comes the Flood’ by Sarah Perry **

The intriguing premise of Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes the Flood is as follows: ‘What if you walked out of your life only to find another one was already waiting for you?’   Heralded ‘elegant, gently sinister and psychologically complex’, the novel holds instant appeal for fans of books like Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, and of authors such as Sarah Waters.

The protagonist of the piece is John Cole, a lonely man who decides to leave his life behind him and join his brother at his secluded house in rural Norfolk.  Whilst driving away from the neglected bookshop which he owns in London, his car – rather predictably, one may think – breaks down, and he finds himself lost.  Searching for help, he stumbles upon a grand house: ‘It seemed to me the most real and solid thing I’d ever seen, and at the same time only a trick of my sight in the heat’.  John is soon welcomed with opened arms by the odd community of people within, who seem to have been expecting him all along: ‘I ought really to have been afraid of the strangeness and the dark and the insistent child, and those appalling meat hooks hanging from their chains, but instead it all seemed so absurd, and so like something in a novel, that I began to laugh’.

Throughout, Perry uses two differing voices – the first person perspective of John, who is writing an account of his time in his house, and an omniscient third person narrative.  John’s voice drawns one in from the outset: ‘I’m writing this in a stranger’s room on a broken chair at an old school desk.  The chair creaks if I move, and so I must keep very still’.  He goes on to say, ‘I wish I could use some other voice to write this story down.  I wish I could take all the books that I’ve loved best and borrow better words than these, but I’ve got to make do with an empty notebook and a man who never had a tale to tell and doesn’t know how to begin except for the beginning’.

Perry manages to set the oppressive tone of the book almost as soon as it begins: ‘I’ve been listening for footsteps on the stairs or voices in the garden, but there’s only the sound of a household keeping quiet.  They gave me too much drink – there’s a kind of buzzing in my ears and if I close my eyes they sting’.  On the whole, After Me Came the Flood is very well written, and the descriptions which Perry gives of her characters are particularly striking.  Hester, for example, the woman who appears to be in charge of the house, ‘seemed poorly assembled, as though she’d been put together from leftover pieces – her eyes set under a deeply lined forehead, her nose crooked like a child’s drawing of a witch, her skin thick and coarse’.

After Me Came the Flood becomes unsettling rather quickly, and at times it takes quite unexpected turns.  A real sense of place is built, and the first half of the multi-layered novel is very engrossing indeed.  At around this point, however, the religious elements which have previously been touched upon serve only to saturate the entire plot, and cause the whole to become rather plodding in its pace.  The suspense is lost altogether, and it never really picks up again.  The denouement is also rather predictable.  All of these elements sadly add an unfortunate stain to what would otherwise be an intriguing and well driven novel.

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