There were a couple of books I picked up recently for the Century of Books reading challenge – The Bookshop is my selection for 1978 and The Return of the Soldier counts for 1918 and I’ve decided to tackle my favourite first.
Set in 1959 in a sleepy, disconnected East Anglian town called Hardborough, The Bookshop is the story of Florence Green deciding to buy a dilapidated historic building (complete with poltergeist and damp) and turn it into the bookshop she’s always fancied running.
In another town such a plan might have succeeded but in Hardborough the jealous and dominating Violet Gamart is a force to be reckoned with and she wants the Old House for an arts centre…
It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why I enjoyed this book so much. I spent some of my childhood in Norfolk so I recognised the landscape and the town which helped catch my attention early on. Here, for example, is the description of Hardborough’s pace of life from the opening pages:
‘The town itself was an island between sea and river, muttering and drawing into itself as soon as it felt the cold. Every fifty years or so it had lost, as though careless or indifferent to such things, another means of communication. By 1850 the Laze had ceased to be navigable and the wharfs and ferries rotted away. In 1910 the swing bridge fell in, and since then all traffic had to go ten miles round by Saxford in order to cross the river. In 1920 the old railway was closed. The children of Hardborough, waders and divers all, had most of them never been in a train. They looked at the deserted LNER station with superstitious reverence. Rusty tin strips, advertising Fry’s Cocoa and Iron Jelloids, hung there in the wind.
The great floods of 1953 caught the sea wall and caved it in, so that the harbour mouth was dangerous to cross, except at very low tide. A rowing-boat was now the only way to get across the Laze. The ferryman chalked up his times for the day on the door of his shed, but this was on the far shore, so that no one in Hardborough could ever be quite certain when they were.’
There’s a timelessness about Hardborough and I could picture it as an amalgam of seaside towns I’ve visited. I also enjoyed Fitzgerald’s descriptions of the people and the town through Florence’s pragmatic, accepting eyes as she watches it tip from a coastal town with a little trade to a tourist spot with less opportunities.
From just a chapter or two into the book, as Florence is starting to tell people her plans and beginning to make them a reality, it’s increasingly obvious she’s an underdog who won’t succeed. She tries, she reaches out for help a little, she makes an honest attempt, but she fails. The humour is wry and occasionally pointed as she navigates tasks such as learning to keep the books, trying not buy ridiculous amounts of very pretty bookmarks from passing sales reps, assessing whether to stock Lolita or not and taking on an assistant. I particularly like the image of her fending off the packs of watercolourists who all seem determined to put on an exhibition in her shop despite it being too small and having no inch of wall not covered by bookcases. :)
Perhaps the main reason I enjoyed this one though wasn’t the setting or the humour but the fact that Florence was realistically unheroic. An older woman with just enough money for her modest dream, Florence is rather loveable. She’s definitely not a hero but, then again, not many women in sleepy seaside towns who just want to run a bookshop are cut out to be. It simply isn’t realistic to have every character faced with adversity suddenly discover their inner business guru and cultivate a previously unsuspected streak of ruthless capitalism. Not every quiet underdog faced with a Violet Gamart will decide to bend their personality and ethics and beat her at her own game.
In some ways what Florence does is far braver, she quietly and gracefully moves on from this failed venture to begin again. She accepts what she can’t change and she grieves but doesn’t let it make her bitter.
A few readers seem to have given poor reviews on Amazon and GoodReads because in some way the unhappy ending surprised them or they resented it, something I find rather peculiar. I wonder if it’s a gendered assumption? “Female author, nice cosy looking cover art, older female protagonist, opening a bookshop… Oooh, this will obviously be fluffy and sweet and leave me with a warm fuzzy glow because hey, books with those ingredients always do… How dare you, Fitzgerald! How dare you include nasty people in the town and deny me a happy ending!!!”
Honestly, I haven’t a clue but I’m curious. :)
Spurious speculation on other people’s reading lives aside, I suspect this will be a book that I enjoy more as I grow older. I like it now because I can accept there’s more than one way to take a risk or be brave, but I imagine that Florence will become even more realistic and resilient if I were to re-read it in ten years time. I’m slightly hesitant to recommend it to you in case you’re one of the people who hates it and wishes Florence would just start taking a sledgehammer to inconvenient walls (a la DIY programmes) and do battle with the town dragon, Violet. I think there’s a simple test though. If you argue with a raised but firm voice rather than emotional shouting (or wish you could master that useful skill), this one is for you.
Buy the book: Book Depository