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.

Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles

EW HarpI stumbled across this American Civil War novel and was enticed by its lovely cover (the horse one). Reserve it at the local library and when it arrives it has the Fourth Estate UK 2002 cover of made-up soulful woman, wistfully staring down emphasising the so-called love element. Did they actually read the book? Yes, our heroine, Adair Colley, after her father is attacked and taken away by Union militia, after her house burnt down, after she and her young sisters join the trail of refugees, and after she’s wrongly accused of collaboration and hauled away to prison, having to leave her sisters to their fate – yes, only then, after all that, does she find herself attracted to her Union interrogator who just wants to leave the war behind and make a new life out West.

But no sooner do our erstwhile lovers declare their feelings, than Adair has to escape the prison before being hanged, while her lover, Major Neumann, is sent to join a fighting unit. Adair is on the run again, and believing her father is dead, she intends, as a fugitive, to make her way back to the remains of the family farm.Enemy Women orig cover

This is a dark, dark story where murderous militia roam the land attacking and looting farms, raping and murdering. Adair’s one true love (and, yes, I know that should be Neumann!) is for the horse Whiskey that her father bought her just before he was arrested: she will do almost anything for Whiskey who was stolen, along with anything else of value, from their farm. Horse stealing and trading was a lucrative business and Adair stumbles on the stolen Whisky. She steals him back and girl and horse go on an epic, dangerous journey. But it’s not pretty, it’s frightening, gory and some parts I just couldn’t read.

Adair is a wonderful character: wilful, resourceful, strange, and Jiles’ portrayal of a nightmarish, but also stunningly beautiful, Missouri is fairly amazing. Apparently the role of the militias was swept under the carpet after the Union victory and Jiles did years of research to bring us this tale. The violence was way too graphic for me but I guess part of what the author wanted to do was bring it into the light. So, beware the romantic cover – the later cover with dramatic horse and rider gives a better indication of what the novel is really like. It’s a rollicking, wild, absorbing read.

Top books 2015

A_Thousand_AcresIt’s probably a bit late in the day for this but here goes. Of course I loved all seven of the Harry Potters as I unabashedly admit here – they will always have a place in my heart. Nevertheless, my top read for 2015 was Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. I had heard of this book, first published in 1991, so I bought a secondhand copy that, unfortunately had Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange in a schmaltzy embrace on the cover, so I put it aside (I seem to have missed ‘winner of the Pulitzer prize’ at the top). For some reason I picked it up early last year. I was sucked in to this muscular family saga immediately. She’s such a great writer – her characters might, at first glance, look like all-American mid-west people, but they are anything but – they seethe with ambition, jealously, violence, lust. With resonances of King Lear (a father who decides to leave the running of the rich family acreage to his three daughters) it zings with tension and betrayal. Smiley is Book-cover-Wildwriting a new family saga trilogy starting with Some Luck and Early Warning. They are big books so I’m leaving a bit of space before I tackle them.

My second favourite book for the year was Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. Some readers might be put off by the ‘self-help’ implications of the title but this is an extremely cleverly-written book. Just how Strayed can make a story of walking by herself through the wilderness for a couple of months so compelling, to my way of thinking, is a masterclass in non-fiction writing. By the end, you’ve really gone on that body-breaking trip with her: she’s an everywoman of her time. I did cry when she came to the end of the trail and the story.

Thoughts on Harry Potter covers

HP French DeathlyThe French editions have very evocative covers – take the one for The Deathly Hallows. A title that always sounded funny to me, although beautifully sad. Apparently hallow means:

1.  to make holy; sanctify; consecrate.

2. Obsolete to honour as holy.

Perhaps the French title is more accurate: et les reliques de la mort.

On this cover Harry stares out pensively to the sea as he does when he is at Bill and Fleur’s cliff top house, Shell Cottage, and wrestling with his own destiny.

On the new Bloomsbury cover below, they concentrate on the final fight between Voldemort and Harry and, strangely make Harry look quite young, although he is 17 in this book. The covers have ravishing colours and are very dynamic but they manage to keep the cartoonish element of the original covers.

The Telegraph (UK) newspaper has a comparison between the old and new covers, which is quite interesting.New deathly Hallows

I also love the French cover for the first book. The bemused, but also hopeful, expression on the faces of Harry, Hermione and Ron kitted up in their robes and witches’ hats. Interestingly the French weren’t too squeamish to highlight the witch/wizard aspect with related paraphernalia. Remember the brouhaha in the US about the supernatural elements? The original Scholastic (US) edition cover for The Sorcerer’s Stone did include Harry riding his broomstick but in a fairly understated way where the broomstick in question could easily be a BMX bike. I could only find a small thumbnail of this cover but you can make him out zooming into a tower at Hogwarts, tiny cape flying ans wearing jeans and a sweater.

Sorcerer's_stone_coverharrypotterfrance

Two women, two bags, two books

I spotted theses two new-release books in a bookshop. Do great minds think alike, or is there just so much you can do with the “woman’s torso” school of bookcover design? It’s not as if the subject matter of the novels is similar either, except that they are focused on women. One is contemporary and the other set in 1948.

****

Under the Influence
Jacqueline Lunn
Random House Australia

Eve, now 34 and a concert cellist living in London, returns to an Australian country town for the funeral of her old school friend, Meg. As Eve and Sarah, also a school friend, face their friend Meg’s death, they must also face the past and the secret the three women shared.

****

The Sparrows of Edward Street
Elizabeth Stead
UQP

It’s 1948 and Hanora Sparrow and her teenage daughters, Aria and Rosy, have fallen on tough times.  With little more than the suitcases they carry and a few pounds between them, they must move to a housing commission camp on the outskirts of Sydney.

Analysis of wings

I borrowed a copy of Karen Foxlee’s Anatomy of Wings from the library a while ago and enjoyed this coming of age story a lot. I scanned the cover of the trade paperback as part of a number of books whose covers featured parts of women and girls’ bodies (see under ‘covers’ category).

As A of W was published in 2007, I thought I’d check whether, the author had published a follow up book to her debut. As far as I can tell she hasn’t published anything new, but I did notice some new covers for her book.

It’s always heartening when an Australian novel, especially a debut one, has a shelf life and I was pleased to note University of Queensland Press has reissued A of W. It is also interesting to note that they have put out teachers’ notes for it for senior students so the novel must be on a curriculum somewhere.

My research (such as it is) has also revealed that the novel is also published in the UK and the US.

What a great thing for Karen Foxlee, especially as A of W is set in small town Australia (Mt Isa) and, despite being beautifully written and a bit mysterious in a Lovely Bones kind of way, is also pretty hard-hitting re sex and violence.

Foxlee’s talent has certainly been recognised. She won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Best Emerging Author and used this award to work on her manuscript for A of W. She also won the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Best First Book South East Asia and Pacific Region) and the Dobbie Award.

It’s quite interesting to work out what the designers are doing with the covers. Obviously the new UQP cover (top) is aimed at that high school/YA market but I think it misrepresents the book somewhat. For some reason, it looks to me like the cover to something by Isabel Allende. On the other hand, the ‘this is serious’ literature vibe, suits a school text.

The old UQP cover (second from top) appealed to an older female readership. It’s quite evocative – I like the feel of dry grass in a summer backyard and going around in bare feet but it suggests the narrator, who’s ten, is much younger.

On the whole I think UK book designers (third) are much closer to the Australian sensibility than the US ones. Here the UK design goes for a prairie-like look (don’t think Mt Isa has wheat fields but I could be wrong). However, they’ve got the age right of the girl and the idea that she’s on the cusp between childhood and adolescence. Plus they’ve got two suggestions of ‘wings’. The kite and the strange feathery sky suggestive of angel’s wings.

The US cover (bottom) is in the ‘body parts’ style and the ‘realism’ of the photography would be more in keeping with a non-fiction book here. They also have the female figure as much older – she probably represents the narrator’s older, troubled, sister, Beth. The clouds below her feet remind me of the film version of Lovely Bones. I’m sure that’s not accidental given the immense success of that book in the US.

On the Jellicoe Road

For some reason I read Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi when it came out in 1992, YA in a contemporary Australian setting not really being my thing, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Although the book, and the film that followed it, were very successful, it took Marchetta 11 years for her next book Saving Francesca to be published. This was followed by On the Jellicoe Road in 2006. I noticed this book because I was attracted to the cover. Something about it reminded me of country towns with big shady trees, gravel roads and empty school playgrounds. I spent two years of my senior schooling at Leeton in the Riverina and I have a nostalgic pang for the flat land, ­­­big skies and swimming in the Murrumbidgee. I hadn’t twigged until I finally got around to reading On the Jellicoe Road that the book is set in that area.

Nostalgia aside, I loved On the Jellicoe Road. The novel has a complex structure set around a mystery that resolves itself slowly through the eyes of our heroine, seventeen year old Taylor Markham. Marchetta’s brilliance is to make the reader totally accept Taylor’s viewpoint. It’s hard to describe the plot without giving away details that would make the unravelling of the mystery less satisfying. Suffice to say it deals with a modern day group of teenagers, some from a boarding school, some from the town and some from a group of cadets who camp there every year. The various groups are involved in a territory war every summer. Taylor is head of her ‘house’ at the school and she has to lead the school’s group against the townies and cadets. The enclosed nature of the ‘wars’ and the lack of adult interference is expertly handled by Marchetta but we soon find out the wars are a backdrop to Taylor discovering things about her past that for unknown reasons are being kept from her. The pleasure of the novel is all in the unfolding, and in the development of the relationship of the teenagers (or should I say young adults?), Marchetta’s forte. There are really two stories in one – what happens to five friends after a tragedy twenty years before and how this interweaves with the present day characters. I found this relationship cryptic to begin with – it was brave of Marchetta to just go with the story, confident her YA readers will follow Taylor and be patient enough to let the scenario play out at its own pace.

I was surprised, given the many awards Marchetta has garnered, that in Australia On the Jellicoe Road has only won a category of the 2008 WA young readers award. Last year she won the US Michael Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature, an award associated with the American Library Association. Why, I wonder, is Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones categorised as literary fiction, and short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award, and On the Jellicoe Road relegated to YA? Could it be that Silvey’s book has a male protagonist and overtly references literary classics?

Apropos of the cover I loved so much, the B format cover makes the book look like a soft relationships novel for teenage girls and has none of the sense of place and intrigue of the first cover. As a point of contrast, on the cover for Marchetta’s latest book, The Piper’s Son, the publisher has gone 180 degrees the other way – a monochrome photo of a young man walking down a depressing looking inner-city street. It shouts ‘take me seriously’. I checked just in case the book was categorised as adult fiction. But no, despite the protagonist being in his late teens or early twenties, it’s still YA according to Penguin.

What are they thinking?

I read and loved the YA novel A Brief History of Montmaray and a main motivation in buying the book was it’s lovely cover that captured something of a love of reading and the solitariness and yearning for freedom of teenagehood. Imagine my horror when I saw the sequel in my local bookshop – The FitzOsbornes in Exile. Okay I haven’t read this sequel yet but the cover looks like something for a non-fiction book. The post next to the girl looks like some sort of farm implement and her hunched-over pose suggests she’s exhausted (the book description says “Sophie’s dreams of making her debut in shimmering ballgowns …” hmm nothing about toiling on a farm!). The publishers have also rebadged the first book to have the same look. This effort is a bit better. At least it has our heroine looking out over the sea but it’s still not a patch on the original cover.

The same thing has happened to The Prophecy of the Sisters by Michelle Zinks. The first cover was evocative and caught my eye and luckily the tale was as spooky as the cover. Now they have rebadged this book to be in keeping with the sequel Guardian of the Gate. These later covers are just ghastly. I refuse to read anything with a cover like that which is a pity because I’d really like to read the sequel. I’m sure the publishers are attempting to position these books in the vampire/zombie/horror teen fiction market when Zinks’ books are much better than that and have cross-over potential.

The Last Brother

I’d like share the lovely cover for Nathacha Appanah’s novel The last Brother. Appanah is from Mauritius but now lives and writes in France. The Last Brother is a tale of the friendship of two boys: Raj, a native of Mauritius, and David a young Jewish boy incarcerated on the island after a group of refugees fleeing Europe in 1945 are interned there. Appanah beautifully evokes the lushness of the island but also the harshness of life for both of the boys. The story is framed by the older Raj who looks back with guilt on what occurred on the island. There is poignancy in the portrait of Raj as a boy, not quite aware of what is going on, and who is the victim of a violent father. But I never bought his love for David whom he befriends when he spends time in the prison hospital (Raj’s father works as a prison guard). David is never a fully realised character – his main attribute being his blonde fly-away hair and uncoordinated body. Appanah suggests that David is a substitute brother to Raj after Raj’s other brothers are killed in a flash flood (hence David is really the “last brother”) but I thought the relationship was forced. Nevertheless this is a short, fable-like book, and gives a rich sense of another life. I bought the book on the strength of the wonderfully evocative dust jacket which I’ve framed. Does that count as vandalism against a book? It still has the underneath plain green hard cover …