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.

She is unsentimental and practical, and those perhaps aren’t endearing traits in a woman. A man’s courage and steadfastness are rewarded, if not applauded, but not so much in a woman. People want women to be independent but not too independent.

Culture is for amateurs. I can’t run my shop at a loss. Shakespeare was a professional!

From the beginning it is established that she is kind, and how it’s an impediment to survive in the real world. Florence doesn’t change for the sake of fitting in, and to add insult to injury, she doesn’t even give the illusion of that.

She had a kind heart though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self preservation.

Mrs Gamart is a (bored) housewife and You get the impression that she is used to having her way. (In high school she must have been the queen bee!) She lends new meaning to the phrase “by hook or crook”. Through her we see that the machinations and power struggle in a small town is more pronounced than in a city, because their vastness renders matters which could become a battleground impersonal (to a certain extent), and because everyone doesn’t know everyone or everything that happens.

The quiet Mr Brundish, the least social of all the inhabitants of Hardborough, lets it be known that he supports Florence’s venture. He has barely a few lines in the book but he makes his presence felt. That is superb writing and I can see my future self reading everything the author has written.

While there’s life, there’s hope. What a terrifying thought that is.

Milo North works at the BBC but doesn’t seem to be doing any work. He is an acquaintance of Florence but she thinks he is her friend (Didn’t anyone tell her there’s a world of difference between them?). He is an unscrupulous social climber, and like the Malfoys, shifts his allegiance to whosoever is in power.

He went through life with singularly little effort…What seemed delicacy in him was usually a way of avoiding trouble; what seemed like sympathy was the instinct to prevent trouble before it started.

It was hard to see what growing older would mean to such a person. His emotions, from lack of exercise, had disappeared almost altogether. Adaptability and curiosity, he had found, did just as well.

The book has characters from different ages and backgrounds through which it examines class. Christine is from a working class family, and is no less formidable than the artistically aware (or so she would have us believe!) Mrs Gamart. We judge people by their education and their upbringing without being aware of it. We think being well read equates to being well mannered or cultured, at the very least. But that’s where we go wrong.

In the future I will be classifying people as a Christine, Florence, Mrs Gamart, Mr Brundish or Milo. It has been a while since I classified people like that, honestly not since the Harry Potter books. And to do that in less than 120 pages should tell you how believable her characters are.

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