I selected this book off my to-read shelf where it has sat for at least two years and, on reading the first paragraph, knew I must read on. Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill is a gem of a memoir, a year in the life of a crime novelist who decides to read only the books on her bookshelves. But this is more than a review of books – it can be dipped in and out of, the chapters are conveniently short which makes you want to read ‘just another’ – because Hill attaches a personal story to each book, each author.
I have always felt an affinity with Susan Hill; she was born eight miles from my own Yorkshire birthplace, and I was intrigued to learn about why she writes. I learned so much more; how her first novel was published when she was only eighteen, how she lives an ordinary life but mixes with some breath-stopping names. She met and/or knew TS Eliot, EM Forster, Cecil Day Lewis, Penelope Fitzgerald, Ian Fleming, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Bowen; it is a mirror image of my reading list at university, except for the Bond. Above everything though, the book reveals Hill as a reader who devours everything from Dickens to WG Sebald, Anthony Trollope to Anita Brookner, John le Carre to Olivia Manning. Her bookshelves contain signed copies, first editions, expensive sets, anthologies and poetry, plus shabby cheap paperbacks bought at airports and train stations, or second hand in charity shops. She writes in her books, turns down the corners of pages, discovers things used years ago as bookmarks – bills, paid and unpaid; receipts; picture postcards; shopping lists. She is, like you and I, someone who loves reading books. I recognised her description of reading library books as a child.
“Although when I was a child and growing up I could borrow books every week from the library, there was a limit on the number to be taken at any one time and so, as there was not the money to buy many books either, I found myself reading, re-reading and re-reading again. If I liked a library book I simply got to the end, turned it round and began again. It was a bit like sweets. Until I was ten, sweets were rationed. I had a quarter of a pound a week and there were various ways in which they could be made to last. A sweet a day. Buy only boiled sweets which could be sucked for a long time. Suck half and re-wrap the rest until tomorrow. Occasionally I would have such a sugar-craving that I bought something that was gobbled up in a great burst of sweetness that exploded in the mouth like a firework and then was gone. Sherbet lemons were like that. Marshmallows did not last long.” I turned my library books round and began again, too. I also read my mother’s books. That’s how, as a young teenager, I discovered Mary Stewart.
This is a delightful slim paperback which made me want to re-read many novels first read forty years ago, and to try authors I have always meant to read such as Sebald and PG Wodehouse.
BUY THE BOOK
If you like this, try:-
‘The Various Haunts of Men’, Simon Serrailler #1, by Susan Hill
‘The Pure in Heart’, Simon Serrailler #2, by Susan Hill
‘The Risk of Darkness’, Simon Serrailler #3, by Susan Hill
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
HOWARDS END IS ON THE LANDING by @susanhillwriter #books https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3t5 via @SandraDanby