Obituary: Tobias Hill

British poet and novelist inspired by London’s immigrant life


When his third novel, The Cryptographer, was published in 2003, AS Byatt described its author, Tobias Hill, as “one of the two or three most original and interesting young novelists working in Britain today”.

The following year he was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award and selected as one of the 20 Next Generation poets by the Poetry Book Society.

Tobias Hill, who has died from glioblastoma, aged 53,was born in Kentish Town, north-west London, with his sister Amelia, to parents of German Jewish and English extraction. His father George Hill was a journalist at The Times and his mother Caroline (née Berman) was a graphic designer.

Her father was the brother of Gottfried Bermann, a friend of Thomas Mann and, as owner of S. Fischer Verlag, German literature’s leading publisher-in-exile during the Second World War.

Tobias was particularly interested in his mother’s side of the family. He once said, his German grandparents moved to Welwyn Garden City because “they thought in a new town no one would have any roots”. He thought of himself as Jewish, though he was not religious.

Hill was educated at Hampstead School and the University of Sussex (BA, 1992) before spending two years teaching in Japan, which features in much of his early work. He later lived in Cricklewood in north-west London.

He was as prolific as he was precocious.

He published his first five books in five years when he was still in his twenties: three poetry collections, Year of the Dog (1995), Midnight in the City of Clocks (1996) and Zoo (1998); the short story collection Skin (1997), and the novel Underground (1999), a psychological thriller set in and around the London Underground that tells the story of a Polish immigrant worker troubled by family memories, who becomes involved with a young, homeless woman.

His fiction often featured London. His second novel, The Love of Stones (2001), tells the stories of Katherine, a contemporary jewel dealer in London, and two Iraqi-Jewish brothers who arrived in London in 1833 and set up a jewellery business.

His final novel What Was Promised (2014) starts off in Columbia Road in the East End in 1948. Spanning 40 years, it tells the story of three families brought to the East End by the war. One critic called his poetry collection Nocturne in Chrome & Sunset Yellow (2006) – “a book-length love song to the fabulousness and ragged beauty of his native London”.

“My strong suits, coming from poetry, will naturally be description, which I love doing,” he told one interviewer. “It comes very easily, and possibly structure, up to a point. My weaker suits are character and dialogue”.

Hill married Hannah Donat in 2003, and they had one child, Kit. He had a stroke in 2014, which ended his writing career. He is survived by Hannah, their son Kit and his sister Amelia.

Tobias Hill: born March 30, 1970. Died August 26, 2023

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