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.