Howards End Is On The Landing, By Susan Hill

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The Independent Culture

Whilst pursuing a volume of EM Forster through the warren of bookshelves that prop up her house, Susan Hill is struck by the number of books that she owns but has never read, or has read but forgotten that she owned; and the many old favourites ripe for another outing. So begins a year of re-acquaintance with her own library through an embargo on new purchases and heavily curtailed internet use. Hill offers just enough memoir to leaven what could otherwise be a very list-heavy and opinionated volume.

She was raised in Scarborough but took A-levels in Coventry, and published her first novel aged 18 while studying at King's College, London. Besides half a century of prolific writing she has set up as a publisher and nourished particular enthusiasms for the Bloomsbury set, the Great War and Benjamin Britten's oeuvre. "Namedropping is a tiresome, if harmless, trait," Hill admits, but necessarily indulges with a gracious modesty. A terrifying teenage audience with Edith Sitwell, babysitting Arnold Wesker's kids, recalling a gaunt, wheelchair-bound Bruce Chatwin, finding a Christmas card from Penelope Fitzgerald or a salacious postcard from Dirk Bogarde stuffed into an old tome these tidbits spice her wide-ranging observations on literature from pop-up books to the real heavyweights.

Most of her confessions are literary. She consumed Dickens behind her great Aunt's sofa in Southport but is bored by Jane Austen; Joyce and Proust remain on "the Impossible shelf". "I think I know a lot about Don Quixote," Hill ventures; "I do know a lot about Don Quixote. I have just never read it. I doubt if I ever will." This strikes a chord with my own eclectic dithering through a literary Monument Valley, and one of the charms of this volume is how Hill's opinions, always honest and courteously proffered, set up resonances with one's own reading.

Hill's most recent paperbacks The Beacon, a chilling novella, and The Battle for Gullywith, a pacy children's fantasy - demonstrate her versatility and keen narrative skills. Howards End is more of an enjoyable meander, a genial pillow book of light wit and broad reading (including an astonishing amount of re-reading) whose tone remains on the pleasantly whimsical side of erudition.

Its underlying emphasis is one of reclaiming good but unfashionable books and overlooked writers. The appended Final Forty contradicts this sense, however, by including scarcely any obscurities. Predominantly 20th century but with a good rump of Victorians and nothing, so far as I can see, in translation beyond the Bible and, delightfully, Tove Jansson's Moomin tales, this personal selection might keep you occupied for a year but might not stretch your horizons.

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