The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

Some books are meant to be savoured a few pages at a time. Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop is one of those. With her sparse unadorned prose and economy of words, it reminded me of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. I find it hard to believe that this was her second novel but it isn’t hard to believe that it was shortlisted for the Booker. She started writing after 60 and quickly became one of the forces to be reckoned with in British literature. It is one of the few books where I don’t mind having seen the film (brilliantly adapted by Isabel Coixet) first because it was true to the book, and left quite an impression on me.

When I got the book I was disappointed to see the shape the book was in. What did I expect of a copy that’s as old as me and was published in 1978! But instead of returning it, I started reading it that day itself, trying to read it at the slowest possible speed so as to absorb every little detail, every turn of the phrase. I could afford to do that because I had already seen the film, otherwise the book is quite compelling.

Florence is a widow, who plans to open a bookshop with the little money her husband left her, but the locals aren’t keen on it, particularly a high society woman (for the lack of a better word), Mrs Gamart, who wants to open an arts centre in the same place.

We all have that one bookshop in our city where we bought our books growing up, one which has stood the test of time. The place becomes a landmark and holds countless memories because of how it is linked to our formative years. Florence intends to build such a place in the hostile little town she resides in.

It is not a cheerful book but hard-hitting and incisive. It is about a community of people who are resistant to change. It is also about the nature of business and what goes on behind the scenes. Reading about arranging books and the working of the library made me feel a strange wistfulness which quickly gave way to relief. For those for you who have always wanted to open a bookshop or a library, The Bookshop would serve as a real eye-opener.

Understated, loud, quietly menacing, cowardly – all her characters are distinct, and in a slim volume without much background information we still get to know what these characters stand for. At the same time they remain an enigma and you can’t quite grasp why they do the things they do. The book is a masterclass in writing (of show not tell should be her middle name) and one, which will throw up new things on each reading.

Spoilers ahead.

Florence fends for herself and doesn’t play the part of a hapless widow, and that perhaps offends some people more than others. More importantly, she thinks she can do it all on her own because her intentions are good (ha!). Her outsider status adds to her woes. The question here isn’t how much time one has spent in a place but how well one integrates in to the community. To survive is a tricky business as it is.

It’s a peculiar thing to take a step forward in middle age, but having done it I don’t intend to retreat.

Florence appoints bossy Christine as her assistant; a 10 year old who speaks her mind (she more or less hires herself). Christine is outspoken and likes to do things her way. The third child in a household she learns from an early age to fend for herself. She gives the book some much needed comic relief by the way she sees life.

How Christine’s life changes due to working for Florence, and the direction her life took we can’t exactly say, but all deep associations change us, especially with people who are markedly different from us.

The two of them during the past months, had not been without their effect on one another. If Florence was more resilient, Christine had grown more sensitive.

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