The Bookshop – Penelope Fitzgerald (1978) 123 pages
The Bookshop was Penelope Fitzgerald’s second novel (I reviewed her first here) and her first to be nominated for the Booker, which she later won with Offshore. It’s set in 1959 in the small Suffolk coastal town of Hardborough. This is not a picturesque seaside resort but a damp, isolated place:
“The town itself was an island between sea and river, muttering and drawing into itself as soon as it felt the cold.”
Florence Green decides to open a bookshop in Hardborough and buys The Old House, a 500 year old derelict property:
“The Old House was not haunted in a touching manner. It was infested with a poltergeist which, together with the damp and an unsolved question about the drains, partly accounted for the difficulty in selling the property. The house agent was in no way legally bound to mention the poltergeist, though perhaps he alluded to it in the phrase unusual period atmosphere.”
Florence is a lonely widow, but she is not a pushover. As the forces of the town (mainly Mrs Gamart who wants The Old House for an arts centre for no other reason it seems than she is bored and used to getting what she wants) conspire against her, she doesn’t give up. Astutely, she acquires several copies of a book she has never read by an author she has never heard of, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, and it causes quite the stir, raising much-needed profits for the shop.
She also has her allies. The reclusive Mr Brundish, proudly from an old Suffolk family, is on her side. Christine Gipping, an eleven year old with 2 broken front teeth, proves a tenacious keeper of Florence’s lending library and not easily put off by supernatural elements:
“Florence did not expect her assistant to return; but she came back the next afternoon, with the suggestion that if they had any more trouble they could both of them kneel down and say the Lord’s prayer. Her mother had advised that it would be a waste of time consulting the Vicar.”
The Bookshop is an absolute gem. The portraits of the inhabitants of Hardborough fully realised and idiosyncratic yet believable. The plot is simple but taut, the writing witty. Fitzgerald achieves a perfect balance of compassion without sentimentality.
“She had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to matters of self-preservation.”