Saturday, 20 September 2008

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop

Florence Green feels that what her small town could really use is a bookshop, so she opens one. The decision isn't popular, however, because she chooses the house that local bigwigs have earmarked as a possible Arts Centre. The book maps the course of the bookshop's brief life, taking in a host of minor stories in the process, from whether Florence's young assistant will pass her 11+ exam to whether anything will ever be done about the rapper (poltergeist) in the shop's cellars.

The word that springs to mind for this book is charming. It has a quiet, almost quaint beauty to it, and Fitzgerald's elegant prose carries the piece along. It's short, at only 123 pages, and doesn't set out to do huge things, but it captures the petty rivalries and self importance of village lives perfectly.

Bizarrely, it reminds me a little of Hemmingway's The Old Man and the Sea, though with a very different prose style. That book takes the central dreams of people's lives and shows them worn down inevitably by age and weakness despite the nobility of any stand. Fitzgerald seems to deal with similar sorts of issues here, taking people's simple dreams, from Mrs Green's desire to open a bookshop, to her neighbour's desire to simply live happily with his girlfriend Kattie, and letting them ebb away. The difference is that where Hemmingway shows us powerless against nature, Fitzgerald chooses far more human mechanisms of dissolution, from relentless social pressure, to the small intrigues that almost everyone seems to indulge in, to the patronising 'practicalities' put in the way.

I wasn't expecting this to be nearly as powerful as it was, but the whole works surprisingly well, even though it initially seems like a book in which nothing is destined to occur. It's certainly worth reading.


Heather said...

I'll have to put it on my list!

Still said...

Good review. I think I need a little more action filled reading. Maybe I'll read it.