The odd case of The Bookshop

2018 film tie-in cover

I was drawn to buy Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel, ‘The Bookshop’, because of the arresting image on the cover of actress Emily Mortimer as the novel’s heroine, Florence Green. Mortimer is dark, attractive, bookish, brooding, in stylish retro orange shirt and striped skirt standing outside a quaint small-town bookshop (which, let’s face it, every lover of books has once or twice fantasised about owning). The novel was published in 1978 but is set in 1959 Britain, in the small East Anglian town of Hardborough. The novel has been reissued a number of times, most notably in 1997 where it was reviewed favourably in the New York Times.

If I thought the novel was going to be actually about opening a bookshop, I was sorely disappointed. If I thought it was going to be about a strong, independent woman standing up to sexist forces against her, I would also be wrong. Why it has now been chosen as material for a film, is also perplexing to me. What does it have to say to audiences in 2018? If the crowd of women of, shall we say, a certain age at my local cinema is any indication, it is presented as one of those quirky films about starting over in a picturesque place somewhere like rural France, Tuscany, a Greek island etc. etc. meeting resistance, and finally being accepted. Casting Bill Nye as the curmudgeonly recluse who warms to Florence, suggests the filmmaker intended to move the film in this direction, but I think she was trying to be faithful to the source material, so this felt false and was, quite frankly, excruciating.

2003 cover

So back to the novel. I found this short novel (156 pages) to be extremely frustrating, continually subverting expectations. It was nominated for the Booker prize in 1978 (Fitzgerald won it the following year for ‘Offshore’), surprising for such a weird, inconsistent and improbable tale. Many critics view it as a comedy of manners but I think this misses the mark – there are certainly comedy-of-manners aspects to it, the society party thrown by Violet Gamart where Florence is subtly belittled, is one, as is the bizarre tea party between Florence and Mr Brundish (Bill Nye’s character) – but the tone veers wildly from comedy to realism to satire, even to the supernatural, so that the reader is pretty much always at sea.

Speaking of sea, I find it quite interesting that the covers for the earlier editions depicted scenes of nature at the seaside (the film, also has Florence often sitting on the wintery beach when, really, she should have been running her bookshop!) In the book she only goes once or twice, but these scenes are very brief and she is certainly not a communing with nature, again the reader/viewer wants Florence to be something that Fitzgerald is just not going to let us have.

No character in ‘The Bookshop’ is without flaws, even Florence herself. The most venal is Violet Gamart, who, on a whim, wants the building that Florence has bought and partially renovated, for her own pet project of an arts centre. Florence stands her ground but then seems to forget she has created an enemy. Raven, who is a nature man, gets the sea scouts he leads to help Florence through putting up shelves and painting, yet he also sets up an eleven-year-old paid assistant for her resulting in Florence falling foul of labour laws (Florence has previously worked in a big bookshop where she met

1978 cover

her late husband so she should have known better). We also meet Miles North, a BBC type, who spends his time in a cottage with his girlfriend avoiding actually doing any work. Miles is weak, is emotionally abusive to his girlfriend, and a sycophant to Violet, yet Florence inexplicable befriends him, and even, when she loses Christine her underage assistant, agrees to employ him part time (Why would someone who works for the BBC want to work for Florence, especially as we know he is a lazy sod? Why would Florence employ him when we know, at this stage, she is in financial difficulties? Why would any bookshop owner in her right mind order 250 copies of ‘Lolita’ to sell in a small town? Why would a bank manager lend Florence the money to purchase the premises when everyone in town knows it is riddled with damp?) There are many improbabilities that pile up to conspire against Florence. She meanwhile contents herself with writing silly letters to her lawyer and being duped by everyone. Mr Brundish in a fairly ineffectual way tries to warn Florence but she remains oblivious. He takes it upon himself to confront Violet – the only positive act in the novel to help Florence – but in a final stroke to frustrate and annoy the reader, this comes to nothing.

The final sentence, I suppose reveals Fitzgerald’s cynical and satirical intent: ‘As the train drew out from the station she sat with her head bowed in shame, because the town in which she had lived for ten years had not wanted a bookshop.’ No, Florence, wrong. You are not a heroine, not a fighter for a greater purpose, you are the victim of the malice of one privileged person and your own passivity and misplaced trust. You are a fool who acted on a whim, and didn’t have the sense or fortitude to carry it through. It is quite clear that the town did want a bookshop, as initially the shop did well. Florence made some bad decisions on the stock, the people she employed, and the condition of the building. If anything, this is a cautionary tale of capitalism: it’s dog eat dog and you have to be tough to survive. That’s why we all dream of owning a bookshop, and leave the actual running of them to people who know books are a commodity. Poor Florence.

Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill

This is a book of (mostly) gentle anecdote as Susan Hill discusses books she is reading, and has read, the comings and goings of animals and birds around her house, and reflections on writers she has known (quite a lot of well-known ones such as J B Priestly, Iris Murdoch and Julian Barnes) – all set amidst the changing seasons. Of course she also reflects on her own writing and her writing life, quite amusingly about being pestered by school students to explain the meaning of ‘The Woman in Black’ which is a set text (it would never have crossed my mind to do this when I was a student but email is a double-edged sword). There is a sense of nostalgia but she is never sentimental and, to me, there is something very satisfying about an intelligent person just speaking her mind as though you are a long-standing friend who doesn’t require being pandered to.

Reviewed also at Goodreads

The pleasure of essays

 

I’m pretty much a fiction reader, although I have read non-fiction over the years, mostly biography and history. I remember reading a book on the early Christian saint, Columba. I was much taken with it but I have never been able to find that book again. I also read a biography of Isadora Duncan that started an infatuation of free-wheeling arty women of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, leading on to Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf.

Lately, however, I’ve found myself gravitating to more non-fiction and admiring it for its writerly qualities. A book that opened my eyes was Cheryl Strayed ‘Wild’. On the face of it this was a relatively simple story about a trek along the Pacific Crest Trail in North America but Strayed made it into a riveting narrative that was tense, insightful, introspective and a wonderful invocation of place and exploration of embodiment. I couldn’t quite work out how she’d pulled it off.

After Strayed, I was dumbstruck by a book that I had dismissed because it was a bestseller (and Oprah and everyone loved it) – ‘Wild Swans’ by Jung Chang. What a staggering book this is – beautifully written and structured covering an incredible period in history (late imperial China through to post-Mao) with the unique insight of the author’s parents who were early party members (not even their loyalty or rank could protect them from the ravages of Maoism).

After recovering from this, I stumbled on to Helen Garner’s collection of essays, ‘Everywhere I Look’. Taught, acutely observed, these essays made me realise that the pleasure of language, used with art and precision, could apply equally to non-fiction as fiction, and an essay can yield all the punch and meaning of a short story.

I found this also in Maggie O’Farrell’s book ‘I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death’. While some of these brushes with death are more serious and dramatic than others, each essay is a master class in constructing a narrative. O’Farrell brings all her fiction writing skill to bear on instilling meaning, reflection, emotion, horror and humour in these gems of stories. The first one in the collection, which deals with her encounter with a man on a lonely path by a lake who turns out to be a rapist and murderer is like a novel in miniature – what wonderful economy of style to achieve this. O’Farrell recalls all these events from the present time and so can move back and forward in time weaving around them threads of meaning. She also creates resonances between the pieces so, for example, we find out in a later essay why Maggie was sickly and bullied in school in an earlier piece. She is unsentimental about her younger self, and the reader is sometimes frustrated at her actions, but after ‘Cerebellum’ I had to reassess my reactions.

I also thoroughly enjoyed Penelope Lively’s ‘Dancing Fish and Ammonites’ (bizarrely also published as ‘Ammonites and Leaping Fish’). Now eighty years old, Lively writes wonderfully on the trials, indignities, frustrations but also freedoms of old age. Again, a fiction writer whose prose is muscular, studied and a joy to read. She reminded me of why I love George Orwell’s essays so much (‘A Nice Cup of Tea’, for example) ­– wry, humorous and just so beautifully written. Lively also touches on her childhood (she wrote a wonderful autobiography around this time in Eqypt in ‘Jacaranda, Oleander’) and the essay here conveys what it was like coming back to cold and grey post-war Britain). Other sections of the book deal with her reading and writing life, and an extended essay on memory where she over-philosophises somewhat (the least interesting section for me) but, still, a writer at the top of her powers.

 

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

In a time of taut, fast-paced, violent and unrelenting thrillers, this mystery set in Bombay in the 1920s is a welcomed antidote. Massey seems to be as interested in evoking the feel of the time, it’s mores and details, as setting up the puzzle of her mystery. She spends time, too, in establishing her characters, especially her heroine Perveen Mistry – one of the first female lawyers in India. Perveen is not tough and brash but quietly intelligent and determined. Of course, no detective heroine is going to escape a complication on her past (or present) and Perveen’s is a bad marriage that she just manages to escape (some peculiarity of Parsi law – the Mistry’s belong to this sect – is utilised here). In fact marriage la

w, in this case, that involving Muslim women living in Purdah, features in the murder that has Perveen perplexed. She is well-placed to investigate as she is able to interview the secluded women.

There is mention in ‘The Widows of Malabar Hill’ about Perveen’s time studying law in Oxford, and I would have liked to have followed this thread. Here we get a flashback to Perveen studying at an Indian college, where the female students are supposed to hide themselves away in a female common room when not attending lectures. There are only a few of them and Perveen is the only one studying law where she is subjected to the petty cruelties of the male students. Perhaps Perveen’s time at Oxford will be included in a later book, as it appears, this novel is the first in a series. However, if you can’t wait that long, Massey has written a novella called ‘Outnumbered at Oxford’ that introduces Perveen. This is included in a boxed set of four novellas called ‘India Gray’.

I hadn’t heard of Massey before but she has written quite a number of novels, most notably a series of mysteries set in Japan where her heroine, Rei Shimura, is an antiques dealer. The first of these is ‘The Salaryman’s Wife’ published in 1997 and the most recent ‘The Kizuna Coast’ (2014).

Margaret River Short Story Competition

Congratulations to the winners of the Margaret River Press Short Story Competition 2018. I’m pleased to say my story ‘On Either Side’ was shortlisted and will appear in the anthology that comes out in June this year. Margaret River is a small press but has a good reputation for publishing interesting titles. Their yearly anthology of short stories is one of the few remaining ones that come out in book form (I can think of ‘Best Australian Stories’ and ‘Award Winning Australian Stories’ …). The complete list of shortlisters and winners is below.

MRP 2018 SHORT STORY SHORTLIST

  • Jessica ANDREATTA – Ring Pull Art
  • Judith BRIDGE – Foodies
  • Abigayle CARMODY – No Harm Done
  • Zoe DELEUIL – Setting Sail
  • Penny GIBSON – Small Fish
  • Ashley GOLDBERG – Soap
  • Cassie HAMER – Habitat  *Second Prize*
  • Tiffany HASTIE – The Chopping Block  *Southwest Prize*
  • Tee LINDEN – Bounds
  • Miranda LUBY – The Sea Dragon
  • Helen RICHARDSON – On Either Side  
  • Fiona ROBERTSON – Descent
  • Sue ROBERTSON – Le Micocoulier de Provence
  • Andrew ROFF – Pigface  *First Prize*
  • Kit SCRIVEN – The Fate of Angels
  • Warwick SPRAWSON – Cracked Head
  • David Thomas Henry WRIGHT – Living with Walruses

Top Reads of 2017

Looking back over the books I read in 2017, I notice that I did read quite a bit of schlock. By shlock I generally mean genre books that are written to thrill, excite, divert, transport one to an exotic, unusual or just very different environment, all for entertainment. They are the sort of book you don’t like to admit to reading such as the romance thrillers of Mary Stewart (I read two of these – The Gabrielle Hounds set in Lebanon and the novella, Wind Off the Small Isles, set in the Canary Islands) or they are children’s/YA books like Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries (I gobbled down The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag).

Nevertheless, I did read some more worthy tomes, and was glad to see that out of the 37 books I read, eleven were literary, and one a classic (Middlemarch). I was surprised that I read only two crime books, six fantasy/speculative and also only two kids/YA (Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls and the Flavia de Luce).

What was not surprising is that I continue to overwhelmingly read female writers – 29 out of 37, and my top books for the year are all by women. Of the male writers, my favourite book was Hisham Matar’s gentle and atmospheric Anatomy of a Disappearance. In many ways this novel about an adolescent boy who has complex feelings towards his father’s new beautiful, young wife and the guilt he feels when his father goes missing, and he and his stepmother have to search for him, reminded me in tone of one of my favourite books of the year, Susanna Moore’s wonderful My Old Sweetheart. Here the adolescent is a girl, not a boy, trying to cope with an erratic, beautiful mother and distant father on their ravishingly-described estate in Hawaii (Matar’s beautifully-described setting is a 1950s Alexandria).

Top 3 books

Wild Swans by Jung Chang
This book taught me so much about Maoist China. It was told from the inside because Jung’s parents were fairly high-up Communists having joined the movement during WWII. Her parents were idealists and their lives are told with insight and poignancy. How Jung managed to put together this huge book from interviews with her family, and make it so utterly compelling, is a marvel – it goes from her grandmother’s experience the Qing dynasty in the early 20th century, through her parents’ time in the rise of Communism, and the true horror of Mao, onto Jung’s own experiences as a child and young woman, until she eventually gets a chance to escape to the West. It is an epic, it is beautifully written and constructed, and it is one of those rare books that takes you convincingly into an alien culture. Amazing.

My Old Sweetheart by Susanna Moore
One of those books that you click with. The main character, Lily, is the sensitive, conflicted adolescent that I, rather nostalgically, relate to. Everything is felt deeply, the mother is idolised, yet fatally flawed, and we know that Lily is going to be hurt. It’s a life of beauty, ennui, longing. It’s like a Katherine Mansfield short story, or the delicious, sad, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.

Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn
Better late than never to come to this wonderful fantasy novel set in a reimagined medieval Japan. The two main characters: Takeo and Kaede, both teenagers when it starts are wonderfully realised, and both constrained, one way or another, by the strictly codified society they live in. I fell in love with the world-weary but essentially good Lord Shigeru, as did Takeo when Shigeru rescued him from the warlord who had destroyed his village. Takeo has to learn to craft his powers, and control his impulses, while Kaede has to survive being a hostage in a rival clan’s castle. These books (Tales of Otori) are beautifully written, paced superbly, great plotting, exciting, sad, gory – just everything you want from fantasy/historical fiction.

The Good People – Hannah Kent

I finally ‘read’ Hannah Kent’s novel ‘Burial Rites’ in audio book form. I had avoided novel, really, because of all the hype around it: somehow it came across as a genre-type book because it was based on a gruesome murder, with domestic violence undertones. What Kent did, in fact, write was a wonderfully controlled novel about a particular closed and tight-knit society – 19th century Iceland – in which the ‘truth’ about the murder is slowly revealed as we get to know the thoughtful and sensitive heroine as she is housed with a family awaiting her execution. The novel was based on a real story that Kent came across in her research.

One of the most amazing things about ‘Burial Rites’ was Kent’s ability to absolutely recreate the everyday life of rural Iceland, capturing the small rhythms of the day and year, and the quiet, subtle interrelations of the characters.

The quite staggering thing about ‘The Good People’ is that Kent has done the exact same thing but this time set in Ireland in 1825. The novel is set in a rural valley, where except for going to the nearest market town to sell their butter and eggs, the people live out the grind on their small landholdings – but of course, they don’t own the land but rent it. It is a limited life in the extreme, but Kent takes us there, and it feels utterly convincing. She has the gift of recreating a tiny, closed-in world, in all the interest of its detail, that is as alien to us today, as if she’d set it on another planet.

Our main characters are Nora, who is widowed in the first chapter, Nance Roach who is the local ‘cunning woman’, someone who deals in cures and charms, and Mary, a fourteen year old who is hired out as a seasonal worker and who comes to help Nora with her severely disabled small grandson. This might be Ireland in 1825 but medieval superstition, especially belief in the Good People – the fairies – still exists. While the local, hard-nosed priest, preaches against the superstition, pretty much everyone in the valley believes in the Good People, avoids places where they might gather, like the Piper’s Grave, and go to Nance to get their ailments cured. It is Kent’s intent to get inside this society, and to let us see their lives and actions through their eyes.

The tragedy of the novel is centred on the grandson, Michael. His mother died when he was two and his father dumps him on Nora and leaves. While Nora’s husband, Martin, dies a few pages in (suspiciously clutching his chest, and at the cross roads), we get the feeling that if he had lived they could have cared for Michael together, but grieving after his death, the difficulty of the disability starts to crush Nora, and the child’s mannerisms and the change in his appearance, makes her happy to eventually accept the rumour that he is a changeling – a fairy child left in the place of her real grandson.

As in ‘Burial Rites’, Kent takes a baffling crime and creates a plausible story around it. Here, she has to convince us that the three women she has portrayed as essentially good, could do something, that, on the face of it, is fairly evil. I don’t know if she is entirely successful but, as with, ‘Burial Rites’, I empathised with the ‘criminals’. Nance Roach, in particular, is a finely-drawn character, but it was the details of life in early 19th century Ireland that fascinated me – the earth floor of the ‘cabins’, goats and chickens in the houses, bare feet, even in the snow, the ‘breakfast potato’, (in fact the diet seems to consist only of milk from their one cow, eggs from the chickens and potatoes from their potato bed). There is also mention of the itinerant poor who are accused of nicking the necks of people’s cows and drinking their blood for sustenance.