I bought this book, The Bookshop, at the Daryaganj Book Market in Delhi because it looked like it might be an interesting read. It’s a shame I waited three years before I finally did read it. If I had read it sooner I’d probably have managed to secure copies of Fitzgerald’s other books and savoured each one by 2016.
In The Bookshop, Penelope Fitzgerald tells the story of a middle aged woman, Florence Green, who decides to open a bookshop in the fictitious East Anglian town of Hardborough in the year 1959. The narrative meanders through the challenges Florence Green faces in starting the only bookshop in a town where the general majority does not see the sense in having a bookshop. There is, in particular, a Mrs. Gamart, who attempts to dissuade our protagonist from starting the bookshop. When Florence Green, a very insignificant person in comparison to Mrs. Gamart, politely refuses to be persuaded and stands firm in her decision, she only invites a barrage of more difficulties. It doesn’t help that the Old House, her new home and location of the bookshop, is haunted by poltergeists.
This story is not fast paced or thrilling in any way. It’s quiet with few embellishments. Penelope Fitzgerald’s writing voice is gentle and very matter of fact here. You do not see Florence Green wallowing in self-pity or lashing out in anger at the injustices hurled her way. She is pictured as a kind, unpretentious woman with an outlook on life that is balanced between reality and hope.
The writing style is clear and descriptive with characters that come alive and make your eyes widen at their behavior, or shake your head and laugh quietly. The author manages to convey courage and strength even while focusing on the ordinariness of her main character. I could picture Florence Green sighing at the unpleasantness that life dealt her, then shrugging and trying to figure out her next step.
The qualities that made this book a delight to read were its quiet discernment of human life and Penelope Fitzgerald’s exquisite brilliance in telling a story that has no seeming plot. In a way, it is reminiscent of actual human life that does not have a prominent plot either. The narrative is clear-eyed in relating instances that make one gasp in shock for the poor lady. As the jacket on the book reads, “This story is for anyone who knows that life has treated them with less than justice.” To me, The Bookshop seemed to suggest that even the most ordinary person is an interesting story of themselves and can find ways to connect with other people. It goes without saying that this is highly dependent on how well the story is told.
I found out this afternoon that this novel was one of the author’s earlier works and is based on personal experiences. While Penelope Fitzgerald had worked part time in a bookshop, the similarity that strikes us is the unexpected difficulties she faced in her middle years. It was interesting to learn that she published her books only after the age of sixty.
I thought The Bookshop was a lovely book! I liked its quiet lack of emphasis, the charming narrative, and unpretentious humanness throughout. I will definitely be on the lookout for more of Penelope Fitzgerald’s books.