The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

‘In 1959 Florence Green occasionally passed a night when she was not absolutely sure whether she had slept or not.’

Hardborough, a small coastal town in East Anglia, is the setting for this novel. 

‘The town itself was an island between sea and river, muttering and drawing into itself as soon as it felt the cold.  Every fifty years or so it had lost, as though careless or indifferent to such things, another means of communication.’

An isolated town besieged by the elements.  A town without a bookshop.  Florence Green approaches Mr Keble, the bank manager, for a loan.  She wants to buy the Old House, which has its own warehouse.  Eventually, the loan is approved, and Mrs Green sets to work.

But not everyone wants the Old House to become a bookshop.  There is a well-defined social hierarchy in Hardborough, and Mrs Green has unwittingly trodden on the toes of Mrs Violet Gamart.  Mrs Gamart marshals her own forces to undermine Mrs Green: it is spiteful, petty, and effective.  Mrs Green has her own supporters, but they are rendered powerless. So, despite establishing a lending library, having the support of Mr Brundish, and having help from ten-year-old Christine Gipping, Mrs Green’s bookshop fails.  There is a whisper of supernatural forces being involved as well.

While I agree with Mrs Green’s note to Mr Thornton, solicitor, obviously others do not:

‘A good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life, and as such it must surely be a necessary commodity.’

The more I read, the sadder I became.  How can a town not want a bookshop?  Why is Mrs Gamart so vindictive?  This is a short novel which left me wondering about people and their motives, and the impact that surroundings can have on what is accepted.  How could the outcome have been different?

‘As the train drew out of the station she sat with her head bowed in shame, because the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop.’

In this short novel, Ms Fitzgerald conveys the best and the worst of small-town machinations.  A mirror on society and an uncomfortable read.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith