My senior year of college I told a woman leading a writing workshop that I would never dream of calling myself a writer. Writing, especially writing fiction, was inherently selfish and wasteful, I confidently explained (perhaps to deflect an anticipated criticism of my writing sample). Not at all ruffled by my false humility, the instructor pulled me aside after the workshop and gently reproved me. “I can tell by your writing that most of your friends in childhood were in books, and someone did you a great service by giving you those friends. It is not selfish to provide friends for lonely people.”
The young Kathleen Hill we meet in the first chapter of She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons is a thoughtful child just discovering companionship in books. While searching for books on orphan girls, she runs across Willa Cather’s Lucy Gayheart and discovers that there is adventure to be found in her own quiet life. She might not be cobbling together a life in Miss Minchin’s garret or walking the ridgepole of a roof, but “looking at things, feeling them, were also things that happened to you, just as much as meeting someone or going on a trip.”
In the succeeding chapters of her memoir, Hill writes about six books that have shaped her life. Each one sets a mood that changes the way she sees the world around her, whether she’s in Nigeria, France, or New York, and each one reveals an aspect of her interior life hitherto unknown to her. Yet despite her gratitude for these books, the through-line of the memoir is her suspicion of them. The usual twaddle employed in praise of novels—“they build empathy,” “they make us better people”—is conspicuously absent. Readers looking for confirmation that books have taught her everything she needs to know will find themselves unsettled by a story defined less by what books have done for her than by what they could not do.
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, read while Hill is teaching English in 1960s Nigeria with her new husband, reveals cultural blind spots to her but cannot force her to look at or respond to suffering. Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, also read in Nigeria, allows her a glimpse into someone else’s marriage and helps her recognize her own capacity for cruelty, but it cannot show her how to change herself.
From the very beginning, Hill uses books, as she puts it, as a way of “looking within myself for the pattern behind the things that were happening to me.” One of the patterns she finds is especially disturbing to her. She’s a flincher. Faced with slavery accounts, she looks away: “Yet when I made an effort to do so, I felt an irritable need to stop at once, to think of something else.” When her husband seeks to look in her eyes one morning, she averts her gaze, avoiding intimacy for reasons she herself cannot explain. In France she rejects the village where she lives in boredom, only to realize that she, along with the town, has turned away from sights of pain and poverty.
Even more troubling to young Hill is the fear that books have spoiled the narrative of her own life by abstracting her from the real world. Hill who, as a young girl, tries to fall in love with a classmate because of his good taste in books—and because that’s what she thinks would happen in a book—has grown into a woman who tries to find in books what she ought to be finding in action and relationship. “I’d been afraid of living wholly inside of books. Fear of the unlived life had propelled me out of them. Reading, I’d thought, was a substitute for living, a sphere apart in which the reader underwent the characters’ lives rather than her own.”
Paradoxically, even Hill’s adolescent idea that her life has a narrative structure damaged by novels comes from…novels. And it’s a novel that makes her suspect that her life doesn’t measure up. When Hill, her husband, and two young daughters move from Nigeria to a tiny village in France, it’s Emma Bovary, who famously “made her hands dirty with books from old lending libraries,” who whispers in her ear that she’s taking time out from her life by living in this sleepy town. Tired and bored, she worries that she’s stepped out of the plot of her own personal novel, and that nothing will count until she gets the narrative right again.
Here a book does come to Hill’s rescue. George Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest, the fictional writings of a dying priest stationed in a village similar to Hill’s, begins to turn her eyes away from self-analysis. Up to this point, Hill’s Catholicism has been mentioned mainly in passing. We’ve seen her seeking out a church in Nigeria, shocking Nigerian Protestants by eating fish on a Friday (“Vatican II had swept all that away”), and amused to find herself congratulated for being an “R.C.” admitted into good Rwandan company. In France, she attends Mass, notes a statue of St. Anne teaching Our Lady to read, and realizes what she has so far been seeking in books: “a story, a world that opened up beyond my inner walls.”
No such vistas are offered her. Rather, a homily, followed by a glimpse of the suffering hidden in the idyllic town, brings home to Hill just how cramped and insular an interior life focused on finding its own story can be. Hill finds her soul too small for grief and turns to Bernanos’s book, since “in its pages alone there seemed space enough for a burgeoning sorrow.” The priest, in his discovery that a willingness to suffer is a form of love, inspires her, but she cannot yet conform her life to that truth. Sorrow over this inability and over wasted time turn her inward yet again, but the book’s account of the priest’s last words, “grace is everywhere,” pull her out of the spiral.
There’s nothing pedantic about Hill’s storytelling, but if one could extract morals from each of the first five chapters, one might recreate a morality tale written in the early nineteenth century: a young woman, enticed by a few real promises, disappears into novels. The books, despite their benefits, have done exactly what the 1820 The Guardian, Or Youth’s Religious Instructor predicts: “They give forwardness without strength. They hinder the mind from making vigorous shoots, teach it to stoop when it should soar, and contract when it should expand. They inculcate morality and good actions it is true, but they often inculcate them on a worldly principle.”