Beginning with a Best American award-winning narrative, Kathleen Hill's memoir explores defining moments of a life illuminated by novels, read in Nigeria and France and at home in New York. As a child in a music class where a remarkable teacher watches over a classmate marked for tragedy, the author by chance reads Willa Cather's novel,Lucy Gayheart, and is prepared against her will for death by drowning. And prepared for the teacher's confessions to the class of a frustrated ambition to become a pianist, her regret for a life that will never be. Later, recently married and living in a newly independent Nigeria, a teacher now herself, the author gives Achebe's Things Fall Apart to her students and is instructed by them in the violent legacy of colonialism. And loses her American innocence when she visits a nearby abandoned slave port and connects its rusting shackles with the students sitting before her. Reading A Portrait of a Lady, also in Nigeria, she ponders her own new marriage through the lens of Isabel Archer's cautionary fate, remembers her own adolescent fear that reading might be a way of avoiding experience. A few years later, this time in a town in northern France, haunted by Madame Bovary, by Emma's solitude and boredom, she puts aside Flaubert's novel and discovers in Bernanos' Diary of a Country Priest the poverty and suffering she had failed to see all around her. The memoir closes with a tender account of the author's friendship with the writer, Diana Trilling, whose failing sight inspires a plan to read aloud Proust's masterwork, an undertaking that takes six years to complete. Faced with Diana's approaching death and the mysteries of her own life, the author wonders whether reading after all may not be experience at its most ardent, its most transforming.
Kathleen Hill is the author of two previous novels. Her first novel, Still Waters in Niger was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and named a Notable Book of the Year by The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune. It was also selected for The Quality Paperback Book Club. The French translation, Eaux Tranquilles, was shortlisted for the Prix Femina Etranger. Her second novel Who Occupies This House was an editor's choice at the New York Times Book Review. One essay included in She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons was selected as one of the Best American Short Stories as well as The Pushcart Prize XXV and The Pushcart Book of Short Stories; another, published in Ploughshares, went on to be released in an Amazon Kindle that was selected as One of the Best Kindle Singles of 2014. She teaches in the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College.
"In this multi-faceted gem of a book, Kathleen Hill, a great reader, pays tribute to the masterworks of literature which have inspired her, and uses her prodigious memory and her lucid prose style to celebrate love and compassion as the most noble and enduring of human qualities."--Colm Toibin, author of The Master and Brooklyn