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.” 

If the effect of books on a young woman’s life are so mixed, why does Hill add to the shelf?

If the effect of books on a young woman’s life are so mixed, why does Hill add to the shelf? Hill provides a sort of answer in the final chapter, in which she describes reading Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu to an aging Diana Trilling. Hill had met the much older woman (and her famous husband) in Europe a few years after her time in France. Now, more than a decade later, with Trilling’s eyesight failing, Hill reads to her in between long talks about their work, their marriages, and their insecurities.

Like À la recherche du temps perdu’s narrator, Hill reflects on her own childhood and youth as she reads to Trilling. Again, she searches for a pattern and frets over the life she’s lived—and the lives she’s not lived, through her own fault or somebody else’s. Then, “in a flash,” she imagines herself looking back at this moment when she’s Trilling’s age. She concludes that she was wrong to fear books, that “the life we’d been talking about, the life denied us, was a creature of the air, a fancy, a way of giving shape, a story, to the lives we’d been given.”

One wonders whether Hill, now at last in the golden years she’d imagined, truly believes this conclusion. A woman who’s spent many years observing her own ability to deceive herself, she must wonder if this consolation is real. Is she letting herself off the hook for missed opportunities? Or is this the voice of faith, trusting in grace to lead and redeem? If she can’t be sure of her reading of a novel, it seems a stretch to trust her reading of her own life.

Or maybe Hill has found a way to test her own conclusions. “Reading aloud to someone you love is a little like sitting with them in the dark, talking,” she writes. “The words of the book, the image that passes before your eyes, is the dream from which you slowly awaken to find yourself awash in scattered images from your past, odd bits of ponderings for which there seem to be no words. But if someone is there beside you, and if there are rings of quiet surrounding anything that is said, then these fragments may find their way into speech.”

Like a written text, Hill’s reflections dwelt on in isolation might confuse and deceive her. Voiced aloud, they can now be tested, not just by Hill and by Trilling, but by the readers of Hill’s book. Whether she has spoken what is right about her books or her life is no longer a matter of private judgment. In reading her life aloud to us in the late afternoon of her life, she has created a space where her own evaluations can settle by inviting us to judge whether she’s written and thought rightly.

More importantly, this text and the invitation to read are the act of love she hoped for when she was younger. “I was beginning to make out that the solitary self, the person I was when alone and reading and dreaming, would never find its truest expression, of which I could foresee so little without the labors of loving.” The labor of loving Trilling changed her reading; when she had read alone, she drew companionship from pages that informed her real-life relationships. When reading with Trilling, her friend’s companionship informed her experience of the text.

Flannery O’Connor wrote, “I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.” Hill’s memoir of “a life in novels” is not itself fiction, but by writing down the fictions she has believed, she also plunges into reality. By doing so, she has provided not just a narrative that can distract readers from their isolation, but a prompt to look outside of ourselves as we read with her and ask questions of her. If we become less lonely and a little less selfish along the way, all the better.


She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons
A Life in Novels

Kathleen Hill
Delphinium, $24, 225 pp.

Bria Sandford is a senior editor at Penguin Random House.

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Published in the May 4, 2018 issue: View Contents
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