Hill, Justin 1971-
HILL, Justin 1971-
PERSONAL: Born 1971, in Freeport, Grand Bahama, Bahamas. Education: Graduate of Durham University.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Warner Books, 1271 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.
A Bend in the Yellow River, Phoenix House (London, England), 1997.
The Drink and Dream Teahouse, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2001.
Ciao Asmara, Abacus (London, England), 2002.
SIDELIGHTS: After graduating from Durham University, Englishman Justin Hill decided that he wanted adventure. So he signed on with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), an organization that allows people to use their skills to better the world. During his first stint in China as an English teacher in Yuncheng, a town of 100,000, Hill took advantage of the opportunities available. "The time there gave me two things: time to work at my writing—and experiences I could write about," he wrote on his publishers Web site, TWBookmark.com. As his Mandarin improved and he was able to travel into remoter parts of the country, the experience became even more rewarding. "The longer I was a part of the villagers' lives and culture, the more I became conscious that, as well as teaching them English, I was learning a great deal myself," Hill wrote in an article for the London Daily Telegraph. After three years in China, Hill returned to England over the Silk Road. He found a publisher for his writing, a first book titled A Bend in the Yellow River, in which he told of "some touching, humorous, and poignant" interactions with the Chinese people, to quote Library Journal's Kitty Chen. Reviewing this debut work for the Times Literary Supplement, Colina MacDougall commented, "He is a lively and gifted writer, and what might seem a tedious experience in other hands becomes a cheerful narrative seasoned with amazement," adding, "His book reveals aspects of Chinese life which few foreigners get to see."
After another VSO-sponsored job, this time for two years in Eritrea, Hill returned to China. For a year he worked in Shaoyang and during this time he thought about writing a novel. "I wanted to write a book that would sum up everything I thought and felt about modern China," he recalled at TWBookmark.com. "The inspiration for my book came just a week before I left to come home. When the summer was settling in, one of the older members of the college where I taught, died. A marquee was set up; the mourners came out, at night the karaoke singers sang through the night, and it rained: heavy monsoon rain," Hill continued. "I travelled back along the Trans-Siberian Railway and kept that scene in my mind: a factory closes, a man dies and then it starts raining." Indeed, The Drink and Dream Teahouse begins with the closing of a factory in Shaoyang, China, which event prompts the suicide of Party Secretary Li. Then the plot follows the activities of the former factory worker Old Zhu, his son Da Zhan, who has returned rich from life in the city, and his former girlfriend and Tiananmen Square protester, Liu Bei, who works as a prostitute at the Drink and Dream Teahouse. Another subplot involves the efforts of a neighbor to match her daughter with Da Zhan, but the daughter is romantically involved with a less auspicious candidate for marriage.
A number of reviewers maintained that the novel's strength lies in its characterizations and depiction of everyday life in modern China. According to Edward Stern, reviewer for the London Independent Sunday, "The Drink and Dream Teahouse is full of fascinating insights into the character of the Chinese people." Peter Ho Davies, reviewer for the London Independent, added that Hill "occupies the consciousness of these characters with convincing confidence. His impressive knowledge is complemented by a sensitivity to China's past, and an awareness of the cultural life that existed before communism and that offers hope in its persistence." Several critics remarked on the novel's humor. "Parental meddling in the lives of the younger generation provides a measure of wry humor," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor, while Robert E. Brown of Library Journal noted Hill's "wit and great powers of observation."
Several reviewers discussed the plot, particularly what they considered to be its lack of tension. On januarymagazine.com Margaret Gunning praised Hill's evocation of the times but found the plot lacking in adequate tension. "These various streams of plot meander along somewhat aimlessly, not gaining a lot of momentum," Gunning noted, adding: "The Drink and Dream Teahouse is at its best when recounting the cost of political oppression in individual human lives. Yet this very oppressiveness leads to a narrowness of scope." Davies suggested that "if the novel can seem a little aimless, this is perhaps intentional. … Hill compensates by switching smoothly from family to family to maintain the story's energy." All in all, according to a Kirkus Reviews contributor, Hill "spins a marvelously credible and affecting tale." "The author of The Drink and Dream Teahouse is not Chinese, but he knows China inside out," concluded Carolyn See in her Washington Post review. "Every sentence is filled with knowledge, affection and a poignant sense of loss."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Daily Telegraph (London, England), March 10, 2001, Melissa Denes, "From Great Leaps Forward to Big Advances," and Justin Hill, "Life as I Now Know It," p. 09.
Geographical, September, 2002, Winnie Liesenfeld, review of Ciao Asmara, p. 217.
Independent (London, England), March 10, 2001, Peter Ho Davies, "At Home in the Revolution," p. 12.
Independent Sunday (London, England), March 25, 2001, Edward Stern, "Lyricism and Lotus Roots," p. 41.
Library Journal, April 1, 1998, Kitty Chen, review of A Bend in the Yellow River, pp. 113-114.
Publishers Weekly, March 30, 1998, review of A Bend in the Yellow River, p. 64.
Times Literary Supplement, July 11, 1997, Colina MacDougall, review of A Bend in the Yellow River, p. 30; March 23, 2001, Frances Wood, review of The Drink and Dream Teahouse, p. 7.
Washington Post, November 2, 2001, Carolyn See, "The Once and Future China," p. CO2.
January Magazine,http://www.januarymagazine.com/ (December 19, 2001), Margaret Gunning, "Teahouse of Sorrow."
TWBookmark.com,http://www.twbookmark.com/ (January 15, 2001), "Justin Hill."*