I sometimes wonder what it would be like to live in a tiny village near the sea – and I just know I would hate it there, simply because it would be too far from civilisation, and because it would not have a bookshop. Sometimes, however, when I feel especially fed up with city life, I wonder whether it might not be fun after all. Thankfully, at times like these I’m reminded of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, which shows exactly why I wouldn’t thrive there. Want to know what it’s about? Read on!
The Bookshop is about Florence Green, who has lived in the East Anglian town of Hardborough for quite some time, and therefore decides to open a bookshop. While she is admired and supported, both emotionally and financially, by some, others have determined that a newcomer does not have the right to change anything in their beloved town. Florence’s bookshop soon becomes the battleground that divides the usually peaceful village of Hardborough.
When I started reading The Bookshop, I was expecting a feel-good story about someone who shakes up a sleepy village, much to the chagrin of the town elders, and makes them realise there has always been something missing in the lives of its inhabitants. I was expecting something similar to the book The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald, or the movies Chocolat, Footloose, Pride, or even the more serious As It Is in Heaven. I was expecting slowly to fall in love with the main characters, and cheer on them when they achieved their goals. Well, nothing like that happened.
First of all, Florence has already lived in Hardborough for ten years before she opens up her bookshop; she should be part of the community by now. However, and this is where Fitzgerald’s novel really starts to hurt, she is still seen as a newcomer. Florence isn’t part of the community, but doesn’t belong to anything else either. All we know about her is that her husband died, and that she ran a bookshop before she moved to East Anglia.
We don’t know much about most of the other characters, either: there is Christine, the clever girl who helps Florence out in the shop and who might even have enough brains to go to a proper school; there is Mr Brundish, a solitary man who never leaves the house, until he decides to stand up for Florence; there is Mrs Gamart, who considers herself very much a VIP and who makes it her personal mission to destroy Florence’s venture (she even contacts her nephew, who is an MP, and begs him to pass a bill that allows her to kick Florence out); and then there’s the ‘rapper’, a poltergeist, which serves as a reminder that the bookshop is cursed.
Not much happens in The Bookshop. It is a sleepy, sea-y, ghostly little town, and it is almost as though the inhabitants of Hardborough, weary from their constant battle with the sea and the rivers, the wind and the rain, have settled into a very basic form of living, and anything that deviates from what they’re used to is seen as a threat. Somehow, they have embraced the fact that nothing will ever happen to their village. The books that Florence is trying to sell might serve as a symbol for bringing the outside world into the village. It is striking that the bookshop is eventually turned into an art centre which features old-fashioned paintings by and old-fashioned painter.
Straight from the start, I knew that The Bookshop wasn’t like any of the other books and movies that I had compared it to before I started reading it. There are no big, uplifting scenes, no huge announcements, there are no crowds marching down the streets, claiming what’s rightfully theirs. Fitzgerald’s novel is a bleak little book, and the situation became more hopeless with every page that I turned. I felt hugely sympathetic to Florence, and I felt just as powerless as she did.
When I had finished the book, and imagined I was sitting next to Florence on the train back to London ‘with her head bowed in shame, because the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop’, I felt like crying. In fact, reading this last sentence again brings back all these emotions. I was expecting a happy ending, but I didn’t get it. And it hurts more than I thought it would.
It’s weird, for not much happens in this short book. There are no important details, no big secrets or life-changing traumas, and so many things are left unexplained. The Bookshop is a little book about someone who wants to bring change into a sleepy village, but who is opposed every step of the way. I bet everyone who has ever tried to do anything has felt like that at one point in their lives.
Sometimes, I do still wonder what it would be like to live in a tiny village like Hardborough. All it takes is a short reminder of The Bookshop to cure me of any such thoughts.
What did you think of The Bookshop? Would you ever want to live in a tiny village? Would you have the courage to change a tiny corner of the world? Do we need big events in books in order to feel something? Do we always need a happy ending? Are there any other books like this one? Please let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to follow me for more book-related posts!