Jacob’s Room Is Full of Books by Susan Hill

Susan Hill has published dozens of books in multiple genres, but is probably best known for her perennially popular ghost story, The Woman in Black (1983). Apart from that and two suspense novellas, the only book I’d read by her before is Howards End Is on the Landing (2009), a sort of prequel to this work. Both are bookish memoirs animated by the specific challenge to spend more time reading from her shelves and revisiting the books that have meant the most to her in the past. Though not quite a journal, this is set up chronologically and also incorporates notes on the weather, family events and travels, and natural phenomena encountered near her home in Norfolk.

The Virginia Woolf reference in the title is fitting, as Hill realizes she has four shelves’ worth of books about Woolf and her Bloomsbury set. It’s just one of many mini-collections she discovers in her library on regular “de-stocking” drives when she tries to be realistic about what, at age 75, she’s likely to reread or reference in the future. “A book that cannot be returned to again and again, and still yield fresh entertainment and insights, is only half a book,” Hill contends. Some authors who merit frequent rereading for her are Edith Wharton, Muriel Spark, Somerset Maugham and Olivia Manning, while other passions had a time limit: she’s gone off E.F. Benson, and no longer reads about Antarctica or medieval theology.

Hill is unashamedly opinionated, though she at least has the humility to ask what individual taste matters. Her substantial list of no-nos includes fairy tales, science fiction, Ethan Frome, Patricia Highsmith and e-readers, and she seems strangely proud of never having read Jane Eyre. She’s ambivalent about literary festivals and especially about literary prizes: they were a boon to her as a young author, but she was also on the infamous 2011 Booker Prize judging panel, and disapproves of that prize being opened up to American entries.

As well as grumpy pronouncements, this book is full of what seems like name-dropping: encounters with Iris Murdoch, J.B. Priestley, Susan Sontag and the like. (To be fair, the stories about Murdoch and Sontag are rather lovely.) Although aspects of this book rubbed me the wrong way, I appreciated it as a meditation on how books are woven into our lives. I took note of quite a few books I want to look up, and Hill ponders intriguing questions that book clubs might like to think about: Can we ever enjoy books as purely as adults as we did as children, now that we have to “do something” with our reading (e.g. discussing or reviewing)? Is it a lesser achievement to turn one’s own life experiences into fiction than to imagine incidents out of thin air? Will an author unconsciously “catch the style” of any writer they are reading at the time of their own compositions? Is it better to come to a book blind, without having read the blurb or anything else about it?

You’ll applaud; you’ll be tempted to throw the book at the wall (this was me with the early page disparaging May Sarton). Perhaps on consecutive pages. But you certainly won’t be indifferent. And a book that provokes a reaction is a fine thing.


Some favorite lines:

“Cold room, warm bed, good book.”

“I have had fifty-five years of experience but still every book is like walking a tightrope. I might fall off.”

“People say they can never part with a book. I can. As fast as I get one out of the back door, two new ones come in through the front anyway.”

“How many people are there living in the books here? Only take the complete novels of Dickens and add up all the characters in each one and then multiply by … and I already need to lie down. Overall, there must be thousands of imaginary people sharing this house with us.”

“One of the best presents anyone can give you is the name of a writer whose books they believe will be ‘you’ – and they are. Someone you would almost certainly never have found for yourself.”

My rating:


Jacob’s Room Is Full of Books was released in the UK on October 5th. My thanks to Profile Books for the free copy for review.

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36 thoughts on “Jacob’s Room Is Full of Books by Susan Hill

  1. I read a slightly tetchy interview with Susan Hill – in the Guardian, I think – at the weekend which put me off a little. Not that there’s anything wrong with tetchiness if the questions are stupid but they seemed rather innocuous to me. That said, opinionated can make for entertaining reading.

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  2. Thank you. I felt this way towards with Howards End is On the Landing and it’s refreshing to know that this was similar in vibe and that I’m not alone. So many of my bookish “friends” raved about Howards End and I felt a bit sheepish that I didn’t love love it. Bookish peer pressure is a REAL thing. Ha. I’m not sure if I will pick this one up as I have such a massive TBR pile, as I’m sure we all do. And her loss for not having experienced Jane Eyre! Amy

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    1. I read Howards End… fairly soon after it came out, I think, and can’t remember much about it except that I also rated it 3 stars. Oh dear, how embarrassing — I’ve gone back on Goodreads to search my library for Susan Hill and saw I’ve also read two more of her ghost story novellas. I had completely forgotten about them!

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  3. Books about books are always fun – and it’s also fun to compare/contrast our own opinions about books with the author’s! I do really like the quotations you shared, especially the one about two books coming in for every book going out!

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    1. I agree: I can rarely resist a book about books, even though I often end up disappointed with them. I think because opinions about books are so subjective, the more books a book mentions, the more subjective it will be — if that makes sense! Compounding the subjective nature of the reading experience or something like that 🙂

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  4. I remember enjoying Howards End is on the Landing but I’ve read so many unpleasant interviews with Susan Hill since (a classic example is here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/25/susan-hill-books-interview What does she have against New Zealand?) that I’ve gone off her and her opinions a bit. Fun disagreement is one thing, feeling like you’re coming from totally different places is another. It’s a shame, because I’m The King of the Castle made a huge impression on me as a teenager.

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    1. I was wondering if her general fiction was worth reading. That would be the one I would try.

      I know Hill is an occasional Twitter user, so I’m hoping she doesn’t come across my review. Even though I think I’ve been fair, she might take issue with me taking issue with her opinions!

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    2. Oh dear: she found my tweet, liked it, but then replied “The stories about other authors are not name dropping. I have been in the book world for 56 years so hardly surprising I knew so many early on. People say they enjoy them too.”

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      1. loling at this – how apt that she should not only find the tweet, but comment. (I never quite get why writers do that. Once the work is out there, their job is not to defend or discuss it unless someone specifically asks them to, surely.)

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      2. Sigh. I’m feeling rather stupid about this. I tweet links to all my blogs — it’s pretty much all I use Twitter for; I’m a terrible Twitter user — and tag the publisher as a way of saying “thanks, and yes I did finally read that book you so kindly sent me.” So then Profile Books retweeted it, and of course she was going to see it.

        I sense that this is something she’s insecure about: that even after all these years she still feels she has to fight for her place at the literary table. I suppose my use of “name dropping” could be considered injudicious. I thought about replying to her, but figured I’ll just drop it.

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  5. Some parts of Howards End on the Landing put me off a little, too (as you must have felt with the May Sarton bit – I’m very fond of her writing too), but I still ended up glad that I’d read it. There was a lot of common ground despite the gaps. Certainly, simmering beneath all of it, that passion for books. I’ve only read one of her novellas and didn’t realise that she has a series with a recurring character too? Oh, well, just her bookish books for me!

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    1. Is that a crime series? I don’t know very much about Hill’s fiction.

      Of Sarton, she writes: “I have never known such a self-regarding, self-indulgent author. … She believed she was a major poet, that poetry was her form. She was wrong. She thought she was a fine novelist. She was an OK one. How harsh this is. But she is dead and cannot read me.”

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      1. The series you mention is indeed crime fiction. It begins with The Various Haunts of Men, which is as good a piece of crime wrong as you could wish for as well as being an insightful exploration of the way in which the murder affects all those who live in the community involved. However, none of the others can hold a candle to the first one.

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  6. I don’t know about authors catching the style of those whose works they are reading, I certainly do. It’s probably as well that Hill hasn’t read Jane Eyre; I find myself talking and writing in Brontë’s voice for days after any re-reading.

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    1. Oh, that’s funny! Hill mentions Muriel Spark and Raymond Chandler as two influences she has to particularly watch out for style-wise, and says she can’t read any contemporary or crime fiction while writing her own.

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  7. I need to read Howards End Is on the Landing first even though it’s not on my landing (on my Kindle). Woman in Black made a brilliant play and a not so good film but I thought the book was poor. She used 10 adjectives when only 1 was needed unfortunately.

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    1. I think I read Woman in Black in 2008, so my memory of it is not very clear. I’d be interested in seeing the play. She writes that she still gets loads of students asking her about it every year as it’s a set text in some schools and they think she’ll have the answers that will help them pass their exams!

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  8. I do love the quotation about the thousands of people living in the house. And the final quotation (about being given the name of an author that you’d never have tried but which is perfect for you) is what the Year In Books at my work is all about!

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    1. Yes, that’s a great one, isn’t it? I’d love to think that I could do that for people through my blog / other reviews / gifts. There are a lot of mentions in this book of authors I’d never heard of, so I’ll be investigating them and seeing if I find any gems. I think it must have been through her “Howards End Is…” that I first came across The Rector’s Daughter (I tweeted TO her to thank her for that recommendation and point out my review, and she didn’t acknowledge that, now did she?!).

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  9. No longer reads about Antarctica? Tsk, I hope I never reach that stage. And she only doesn’t know about her mini-collections because she famously doesn’t keep her bookshelves in order and decried people who do in a passage in her other book. I thought I remembered her having Iris Murdoch stories in that one, too? Anyway, I’m sure I will come to this in time, even though I already know parts will infuriate me!

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    1. I was going to photograph the Murdoch pages for you, but my camera isn’t working very well at the moment (no macro mode). Essentially, a few weeks before she learned of Murdoch’s dementia she sent her a volume of her essays to autograph and when she got it back it read “SUSAN — IRIS” in wavy capitals, so it always reminds her of her friend’s decline

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  10. Hmm… all these comments about her style and opinions and “tetchy” interviews makes me curious to read it. It does sound entertaining… And with such a beautiful cover, it might even make a good gift!

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