Wednesday 3 September 2008

The Bookshop

I'm SO glad that Enid Blyton provoked such a joyous reaction in you all; not even one derogatory comment. She obviously helped us all become obsessive readers. Though I'm on a St. Clare's binge at the moment, my favourites are either Famous Five or The Naughtiest Girl in the School or the Six Cousins... tricky. Our Vicar's Wife, and probably Our Vicar too, organised a Famous Five party for us once. Brilliant.

Now (and watch closely here, to see if you can spot the seams) Enid Blyton books could be bought in a bookshop, which brings me to The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald. Lynne Hatwell, aka dovegreyreader, very kindly gave this to me when we met earlier in the year, and it was just the right size to slip into my bag on the train today.

I tried a Penelope Fitzgerald novel last year, Human Voices, but not sure I got round to writing about it on here. It was one of those books which I finished before I quite felt that I'd got into it - the style was a little jabby and awkward, and somehow it didn't click. And The Bookshop felt the same for the first thirty pages... but then, thank goodness, how wonderful, it all fell into place and hallelujah, I raced right to the end. From being a book I couldn't get on with, it became one of my favourite reads this year.

Slim and simple, The Bookshop is about Florence Green setting up a bookshop in a small town called Hardborough, in 1959. The business meets genteel opposition from several quarters of the town, but also support from others. Christine, a stubborn and resilient young girl, comes to work as an assistant - and between Christine and Florence a rather touching, but unsentimental, friendship develops. If that sounds remotely mawkish, trust me, it isn't. Penelope Fitzgerald doesn't do mawkish. Her writing is spare, very spare, and there isn't room for emotions - we simply see the people interact, and can quite easily understand the emotions they must be experiencing. How Florence faces opposition, how she accepts Christine's characteristics and how she changes as a result of the bookshop.

The denouement is subtle and devastating - it involves neighbours acting as they would in a Mapp & Lucia book, where it would be a gentle comedy. Here it is understated tragedy. The Bookshop is a triumph of a novel, and I'm so glad Lynne gave it to me, and that *something* clicked whilst I was reading it.


  1. I've not, to my knowledge, read any PF yet but i know i have at least one that I bought in the company of Dove Grey Reader, Random Jottings and a few other biblionuts when we visited Cambridge together. ... Just checked and it is an omnibus Everyman edition of The Bookshop, The gate of Angels and The Blue Flower.
    Simon, you'd better supervise me and make sure I get around to reading this volume.

  2. I really like Penelope Fitzgerald (and did enjoy Human Voices myself). You might like to try something from her later, more unusual period. The Blue Flower, maybe or The Gate of Angels. But Offshore was shortlisted for the Booker and remains one of her best books also.

  3. The only PF I have tried is The Blue Flower and I failed with it. I like the sound of this one -- perhaps a good place to start.

  4. The Bookshop is the only PF I've read so far and I absolutely loved it. Very understated, beautiful writing. Nice to get a few hints in the other comments of what else to read.

  5. I have never, ever read any book by Enid Blyton. This may explain why I became a Physicist rather than someone who studied the Arts at university! Since I am not directly familiar with her work I will not presume to comment.
    I have however read both the Blue Flower and Gate of Angels and would on the whole recommmend them.

    Dark Puss

  6. Phew,that's a relief because that was my very nicest spare copy and it would have been a tragedy to waste it! Plus I forgot to give it to you at lunch and then trekked miles back to the Bod to find you and hand it over, which would have meant unnecessary blisters.
    This was my first PF and the one that hooked me, you'll get on well with the others now Simon. Try At Freddies.

  7. Oh, I hope it wasn't miles, Lynne! But it might have been worth it, if it were - At Freddies next, noted. Though I already have The Blue Flower, so that might twist my arm...

  8. Hi Simon - I've not read this yet, but see my blog - PF is in Katharine McMahon's favourite books, as well as Jane Austen - I thought her list could be your kind of thing!

    I would like to read this - have just started (via new bus) getting to a bookshop again - 2nd hand and new - oh the temptation! Got Goodbye to All That which have always wanted to read, plus another Gerald Durrell (used to read them when I was 12 because of My Family and Other Animals - definitely on my favourites list).



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