Hill, Tobias 1970-
HILL, Tobias 1970-
PERSONAL: Born March 30, 1970, in London, England; son of George (a journalist) and Caroline (a book designer) Hill. Education: Sussex University, B.A., 1992. Politics: Liberal. Religion: Agnostic.
ADDRESSES: Home and office—Flat 4, 1 Minster Rd., London NW2 3SD, England. Agent—Victoria Hobbs, Toby Eady Associates, 9 Orme Ct., London W2 4RL, England.
CAREER: Apex School, Anjo, Aichi, Japan, teacher, 1993-94; writer, editor, and music critic.
AWARDS, HONORS: Poetry Book Society Recommendation, shortlisted for Forward Prize for best poem, and Cambridge University Harper-Wood Studentship for Literature, all 1996, all for Midnight in the City of Clocks; Eric Gregory Award, National Poetry Foundation, 1996, for Year of the Dog; PEN/Macmillan Award for Fiction and Ian St. James Award, both 1997, both for Skin.
Year of the Dog (poetry), National Poetry Foundation (Orono, ME), 1995.
Midnight in the City of Clocks (poetry), Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1996.
Skin (short stories), Faber (London, England), 1997.
Zoo (poetry), Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1998.
Underground (novel), Faber (London, England), 1999.
The Love of Stones (novel), Faber (London, England), 2001.
Poetry editor of Richmond Review and books editor of Don't Tell It magazine, both 1995-96; contributor to London Observer, London Times, and Telegraph; music critic, Telegraph on Sunday, 1994—.
SIDELIGHTS: British writer Tobias Hill is one of England's rising young literary stars. Son of a London Times journalist and a book designer, and still only in his mid-twenties when he began to earn recognition, Hill studied English literature at Sussex University, and from 1993 to 1994 taught overseas at a school for children with learning difficulties. His experiences in Japan had a decided influence upon his poetry, and many of the works that would later bring him success recall the spare, formal constructions of Japanese verse. Back in England in 1995, Hill began to publish his work and read it on the radio. That same year his first collection, Year of the Dog, which won top honors in the National Poetry Foundation competition, was published. The book also won him a generous financial prize with the Eric Gregory Award.
Hill began to win several freelance assignments for publications, including from the London Times and Telegraph. His next collection, Midnight in the City of Clocks, was published by Oxford University Press in 1996. The laudatory reviews were matched by several literary accolades for this title, including a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. The book's thirty-seven poems are drawn primarily from Hill's experiences in Japan. A Times Literary Supplement reviewer praised the collection as solid, and called Hill's approach "austerely sensual. . . . Hill specializes in the type of ripple-effect found in haiku and tanka, where intuitions seem to glow and multiply in the unstated."
The short stories in 1997's Skin take place in locales as varied as Las Vegas, Tokyo, and a warm sea in which a French war veteran is decimated by a shark. The title story concerns a Japanese gangster on the run who is trying to rid himself of identifying tattoos, and the detective who pursues him. Another story, "Zoo," is about the disappearance of dead animals from the London Zoo and the Finnish immigrant who finally discovers the culprit. "No One Comes Back from the Sea" leads the reader backward through a sad tale about a set of parents who communicate with their two dead children via the Internet. Reviewers of Skin noted the successful transition Hill seemed to have made from poetry to prose, and remarked upon the spare, lyrical nature of the tales. For example, Ra Page, writing in the Spectator, noted that Hill's "first collection of short stories is . . . a smooth translation of his poetic aptitudes." "His attention to visual detail," wrote Hal Jensen in the Times Literary Supplement, "results in some resonant images: a pencil-case seething with larvae; acid burning the skin off a tattooed arm; a beautifully presented plate of wafer-thin horse innards."
Similar attention to descriptive prose marked Hill's first novel, Underground, which New Statesman reviewer Douglas McCabe considered evocative and "atmospheric." The book is set in London's Camden Town subway station, where Casimir, a Polish exile, works. A serial killer who preys on blonde women is at large in this huge labyrinth of transit tunnels, and Casimir must try to prevent homeless Alice, with whom he has fallen in love, from being targeted. Though McCabe felt that the novel's structure was sometimes too schematic, he praised Hill's "portrait of [the Underground] as a fragile subterranean city," adding that "it delivers a considerable emotional punch, as if this underground and its hideous crimes are telling us something uncomfortable about ourselves and the city we choose to live in."
Hill's second novel, The Love of Stones, received significant attention and was the author's first book to be published in the United States. It presents the story of Katharine Sterne and her obsessive quest for a famous piece of jewelry called The Three Brethren, an arrangement of three balas rubies around a huge diamond. The gems were brought to London in the early 1800s by two Iraqi Jewish brothers, Daniel and Salman, whose story—along with the tumultuous six hundred-year history of the coveted stones—is inter-woven with Katharine's. As many critics pointed out, Hill's characters are tough, hard, and single-minded in their pursuit of the gems—qualities unlikely to capture readers' sympathy. "This saga," wrote Adam Nicolson in the London Daily Telegraph, "is burdened with its central coldness and, eventually, with the banality of its central preoccupation. . . . This is a loveless book." Similarly, a contributor to the Economist observed that "Katharine never comes to life off the page, and the question 'Why is she doing this?' is not satisfactorily answered." Yet several reviewers felt that the strengths of the novel—brilliant descriptive passages and deeply imagined themes—more than make up for unsympathetic characters. "The Love of Stones is an admirable achievement," wrote Robert MacFarlane in the Times Literary Supplement. "Densely detailed and densely imagined throughout, [the] novel is an object lesson in how fascination can harden into love, or be mistaken for it." According to New York Times Book Review contributor Nell Freudenberger, the novel "often has the controlled beauty of a sestina." Jerome Boyd Maunsell, writing in the Times, described the book as "an eerie parable of greed that is even more precious than its glittering subject." And a reviewer for Publishers Weekly praised the novel's "dexterous combination of historical scope, lush yet precise storytelling, and twist-and-turn subterfuge and intrigue."
Hill once told CA: "I have always been and will always be a poet first and foremost: It is what I do for most of my working time; it is what I take the greatest pleasure in and put most of my energies into; and it is also what I do best. Although I take great enjoyment from spinning a yarn, from trying to tell a good story, I feel like a part-time writer of fiction. What works in my prose tends to come from poetic strengths; the collection Skin, it seems to me, has the organization, lyricism and interrelated structure of a collection of poems. In my first novel, Underground, I tried to step away from the finished quality and 'completeness' of the poems and stories. It is a big, rambling old ruin of a novel, like the archaic subterrannea it describes. The temptation was to clarify the image—the emergence of a central character from psychological burial, the underworld of homelessness, the subsumed racial tensions of postwar Poland. I chose not to even out the narrative, and when the novel works, I think it does so in a way entirely different from the other work I have done.
"I believe in the gift principle of writing. It is something I can do for people; I give poems away like birthday presents. I think the best writing gives something to the reader the first time it is read and the last—whether that be the first or hundredth time. In the best writing there is joy and beauty, even in the act of facing darkness. I look to combine some or all of this with the simpler action of giving pleasure."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, December 15, 2001, Elsa Gaztambide, review of The Love of Stones, p. 703.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), January 20, 2001, Adam Nicolson, review of The Love of Stones; March 10, 2001, Tom Payne, "Little Gem of a Novel."
Economist, February 10, 2001, review of The Love of Stones, p. 9.
Guardian (London, England), February 3, 2001, James Hopkin, review of The Love of Stones, p. 10.
Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 2001, review of The Love of Stones, p. 1507.
Los Angeles Times, January 29, 2002, Bernadette Murphy, review of The Love of Stones, p. E3.
New Statesman, April 26, 1999, Douglas McCabe, review of Underground, p. 49.
New York Times Book Review, February 3, 2002, Nell Freudenberger, review of The Love of Stones, p. 26; February 10, 2002, "And Bear in Mind," p. 22.
Observer (London, England), September 29, 1996, p. 18.
Publishers Weekly, November 5, 2001, review of The Love of Stones, p. 38.
Spectator, June 28, 1997, p. 45; May 1, 1999, Andrew Barrow, review of Underground, p. 38.
Times (London, England), January 31, 2001, Naomi Gryn, review of The Love of Stones, p. 14; February 11, 2001, review of The Love of Stones, p. 45; February 24, 2001, Jerome Boyd Maunsell, review of The Love of Stones, p. 23; February 25, 2001, "You Really Must Read," p. 47; March 16, 2002, Eve Peasnall, review of The Love of Stones, p. 14.
Times Literary Supplement, May 30, 1997, p. 25; June 20, 1997, p. 22; February 2, 2001, Robert MacFarlane, review of The Love of Stones, p. 21.
Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 1997, p. 65.*