Published interviews and personal profiles

Evening Standard

Pete Clark

24th January 2001

For many years, I have lived with the assumption that diamonds are forever, without ever bothering to find out why this should be so.

In the event it was a work of fiction that helped me get the facts straight. The Love of Stones is the second novel by Tobias Hill, and it concerns the search for a jewel called the Three Brethren, a fabulous confection of rubies, pearls and a single magnificent diamond, which was fashioned in Burgundy in the early part of the 15th century and was passed between royals and merchants until disappearing into a historical chasm of rumour and myth.

Three people are seeking the Three Brethren, although they are separated in time by two centuries - a pair of Jewish/Iraqi brothers, Daniel and Salman, and a most contemporary young woman called Katherine Sterne. For them, diamonds and other precious stones are forever. Especially if they are lost.

Tobias Hill sits in the kitchen of his north London flat, toying with a cup of tea that has distinctly herbal overtones, and considers the central theme of his book. “I suppose I've always been interested in the idea of possession,” he muses, “and the idea of being possessed by possessions. In fact, if I could have called the novel Possession I would have, but someone had bagged that title already. I suppose the book could have been about a beautiful house or even a beautiful car, but it is about a beautiful stone - there's something essential about that as an object.”

Beyond this central theme, The Love of Stones has two other sterling qualities. The first of these is its narrative drive, which, being spread over several centuries and a couple of continents, might easily have become dissipated, but has not. “It is a quest,” comments Tobias, “and that is a very basic form of story, it's so old.” The idea of people searching obsessively for an object shrouded in layers of mystery is one which has infinite powers of attraction. Hill stumbled upon this central device almost by accident: “I didn't start with it as the idea for the book, it was originally a story set around the two brothers. While I was doing research work on them, I kept coming across the jewel, this triangular thing used as a cloak knot which become lost, and each time I came across it, I increasingly thought that this might be something to write about.”

The other great quality of the book is that it positively reeks of its teeming variety of atmospheres. Hill writes with authority, although there is nothing of the dry scholar here. By his own admission, the book involved an immense amount of research, but this has been sucked into the organic mass of the tale without leaving the suggestion of a jagged edge. There are, it has to be admitted, quite a few exotic words here which will require the services of a decent dictionary. This is no impediment to one's enjoyment - one of my greatest pleasures was finding out about the existence of something called a murex, which was used in ancient times to produce a vivid purple dye. I shan't spoil your pleasure by revealing what it is. Hill also took pleasure while making his way down the previously unsuspected avenues of his own tale. “I knew very little about the Jewish/Iraqi culture, which was huge. The Sassoons and the Saatchis were Iraqi Jews who came west, but many more of them went east. And they were always interested in precious stones. For example, a lot of the jewel trade in Bangkok is Jewish. Apparently,” he adds with an air of confidentiality, “they have these special rooms there where the light can be adjusted to match that of different cities in the world, so that when you take your diamond back home to Los Angeles or London or Istanbul, it will look exactly the same as how you remembered it when you bought it.”

The appeal of precious stones is not, of course, confined to the fact that they are pretty. The diamond trade carries a whiff of danger, as it has down the centuries. “If anything, people are more aware than ever of this jewel trade which has a surface of great beauty,” comments Hill, “but underneath, beyond all the back rooms, there is something funny going on, you know, blood diamonds and all that. It all becomes very interesting. You get the finished diamond, but if it is an old diamond, the hands it has passed through leave a trace. There are people who will do anything to possess a diamond like that.” Perhaps it is my imagination, but his eyes seem to be glittering with a strange light.

Tobias Hill has a parallel career as a poet, indeed he was, for a short period, poet in residence at London Zoo, a post that sadly no longer exists. Although recognising the superior popular appeal of the novel - “you lose yourself in them, there's this freedom that just lets you loose” - he will continue to write poetry, and says, “I do think it is the cutting edge of language". One form of words that he does not want to get involved with is the dubious art of the screenplay. “I'd run a million miles from that,” he replies when I ask if he had thought of adapting The Love of Stones. “I know that if I wrote a screenplay, not only would I be so far down the feeding chain as to be insignificant, but also that I could write the whole thing and then find someone comes along and flicks a switch and it never sees the light of day.”

No, for Tobias Hill, the book is the thing. “If I could wish anything on the reader of the book,” he concludes, “it would be that they come away from it knowing how it feels to want something that is lost. That sounds a bit like a curse, but there you go.”

© Pete Clark, Evening Standard, 24th January 2001

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