Hill, Justin 1971–

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Hill, Justin 1971–

PERSONAL: Born 1971, in Freeport, Bahamas. Education: Durham University, graduated.

ADDRESSES: Agent—Annette Green Authors' Agency, 1 East Cliff Rd., Tunbridge Wells, England TN4 9AD. E-mail[email protected]

CAREER: Writer. Has worked variously as a security guard, postal employee, furniture delivery person, hospital kitchen cleaner, and teacher in Sanxi and Shaoyang, China, and in Eritrea with the Voluntary Services Overseas (aid agency).

AWARDS, HONORS: Top Twenty Young British Writers distinction, Independent on Sunday, 2001; Betty Trask Award, 2001, and Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, 2003, both for The Drink and Dream Teahouse; Somerset Maugham Award, 2005, for Passing under Heaven.

WRITINGS:

A Bend in the Yellow River = Huang-ho (in English and Chinese), Phoenix House (London, England), 1997.

The Drink and Dream Teahouse (novel), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2001.

Ciao Asmara: A Classic Account of Contemporary Africa, Abacus (London, England), 2002.

Passing under Heaven (novel), Abacus (London, England), 2004.

Contributor of poetry to magazines and periodicals. Hill's works have been translated into eleven languages.

SIDELIGHTS: After graduating from Durham University, English author Justin Hill decided that he wanted adventure. To find it, he signed on with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), an organization that allows people to use their skills to better the world. During his first assignment in China as an English teacher in Yuncheng, 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 commented on the Warner Books Web site. As his Mandarin improved and he was able to travel into more remote 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 first book, A Bend in the Yellow River = Huang-ho, in which he tells of "some touching, humorous, and poignant" interactions with the Chinese people, according to Library Journal reviewer 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." The critic added: "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 on the Warner Books site. "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 traveled 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 prompts the suicide of Party Secretary Li. The plot then 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 to 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. For example, Edward Stern attested in the London Independent Sunday: "The Drink and Dream Teahouse is full of fascinating insights into the character of the Chinese people." London Independent reviewer Peter Ho Davies 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 Library Journal critic Robert E. Brown appreciated Hill's "wit and great powers of observation."

Several reviewers discussed the plot, too, particularly what they considered to be its lack of tension. In January Magazine, Margaret Gunning praised Hill's evocation of the times but found the plot lacking an adequately tight construction. "These various streams of plot meander along somewhat aimlessly, not gaining a lot of momentum," Gunning observed, 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."

Passing under Heaven is "another beautifully rendered Chinese tale by Hill," commented a Kirkus Reviews critic. Based on the story of real-life Chinese poet Yu Xuanji, Hill weaves a tale of shattered love and desperate actions in Tang Dynasty China of 850 C.E. Five-year-old Little Hope is left orphaned when her mother, the concubine of an imperial marshal, commits suicide in desperation while waiting for the man to return. Taken in by educated foster parents and renamed Lily, the girl gains an education but also learns that concubines in Chinese society are regarded as little more than slaves. Unable to avoid this fate, Lily is sold at age fifteen to Minister Li, who treats her well and eventually falls in love with her. Their happiness is jolted, however, when Minister Li's wife—and other concubine—return home. Fighting what seems to be her inevitable ouster and separation from Li, Lily takes up residence in a monastery, where she learns from Abbot Zhao and from poet Wen Tingyun. Inspired to create poetry, and driven by her undiminished passion for Li, Lily gains fame as a poet in the capital city of Changan. When Li's jealous wife has Lily arrested, she is able to escape with the help of Li's intervention. An ill-fated relationship with another man results in a child from whom Lily is separated, driving her nearly insane and compelling her to commit destructive acts from which no one, not even Li, can save her. The Kirkus Reviews contributor remarked that the book is "notable for Hill's masterly craftsmanship and remarkably sympathetic sense of character."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, September 1, 2001, Elsa Gaztambide, review of The Drink and Dream Teahouse, p. 51; April 15, 2005, review of Ciao Asmara: A Classic Account of Contemporary Africa, p. 1425.

Bookseller, June 6, 2003, review of The Drink and Dream Teahouse, p. 30.

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. 9.

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," review of The Drink and Dream Teahouse, p. 12.

Independent Sunday (London, England), March 25, 2001, Edward Stern, "Lyricism and Lotus Roots," review of The Drink and Dream Teahouse, p. 41.

Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2001, review of The Drink and Dream Teahouse, p. 1151; January 1, 2005, review of Ciao Asmara, p. 34; February 15, 2006, review of Passing under Heaven, p. 149.

Library Journal, April 1, 1998, Kitty Chen, review of A Bend in the Yellow River, pp. 113-114; September 10, 2001, Robert E. Brown, review of The Drink and Dream Teahouse, p. 233; February 1, 2005, Sheila Kasperek, review of Ciao Asmara, p. 106.

New Statesman, March 18, 2002, Stephanie Smith, "Paperback Reader," review of The Drink and Dream Teahouse, p. 55.

Publishers Weekly, March 30, 1998, review of A Bend in the Yellow River, p. 64; September 10, 2001, review of The Drink and Dream Teahouse, p. 60.

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. C2.

ONLINE

BiblioFemme, http://www.bibliofemme.com/ (October 7, 2006), Sinéad Gleeson, "An Interview with Justin Hill."

Contemporary Writers, http://www.contemporarywriters.com/ (October 7, 2006), biography of Justin Hill.

January Magazine, http://www.januarymagazine.com/ (December 19, 2001), Margaret Gunning, "Teahouse of Sorrow."

Justin Hill Home Page, http://www.justinhillauthor.com (October 7, 2006).

Warner Books Web site, http://www.twbookmark.com/ (October 7, 2006), autobiography of Justin Hill.