The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald

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It’s 1959 in Hardborough, a town on the East Anglian coast. Florence Green is trying to reach a decision about purchasing a run-down building and opening a bookstore. She doesn’t have to worry about competition—there are no bookstores for miles around—but will she be able to find readers?

Small enough that everyone knows each other’s business, Hardborough doesn’t have much going for it. There is no fish and chip shop, no laundrette and no cinema except on alternate Saturday nights. “Survival was often considered all that could be asked in the cold and clear East Anglian air. Kill or cure, the inhabitants thought—either a long old age, or immediate consignment to the salty turf of the churchyard.”

Since Florence has been living on a small legacy from her husband, she must apply to a bank to purchase even the abandoned and decrepit Old House on which she has her eye. From Mr. Keble at the bank to Raven the marshman to a family of self-sufficient and extraordinarily practical children, Fitzgerald presents her assortment of odd characters in pithy, yet memorable, scenes.

Hardborough is loosely based on Southwold, where Fitzgerald lived for a while, where she became friends with the owner of a small, less than prosperous bookstore. I’ve been reading Hermione Lee’s excellent biography of Fitzgerald which not only explores the influences that shaped her philosophy and choices, but also gives the lived background of the books.

As any writer knows, in the process of crafting fiction, the materials of our lives—people, places, events—are transmuted. Bits here and there are recombined to create a desired effect.

The effect here is of isolation and endurance. The basement of the Old House still has seawater from the 1953 flood; the house has a resident poltergeist, locally called a rapper; and Florence has no retail experience other than a brief stint in a bookstore in her teens. As she tries to balance her vision with her neighbors’ expectations, she inadvertently antagonises Mrs. Gamart, the local society maven. Florence’s choices—of location, of stock, of allies—come back to haunt her.

Hardborough itself acts as a character in this short novel, a bleak battleground where Florence makes her stand. At the edge of the sea, sometimes cut off by tides and floods, clinging to the barest edge of land, Hardborough’s dogged persistence and occasional defeat inform Florence’s story.

I recently read The Rings of Saturn, by W.G. Sebald, his record of a walking tour along the Suffolk coast, partly about the physical world he encounters, but much more about the intellectual landscape, the associations and intricate histories aroused by these places. That book gave me a deep appreciation for East Anglia.

We are often told, as writers, to make every word count. We are to “kill our darlings”, as Faulkner famously said, to ensure that everything that remains moves the story forward. This brilliant short novel demonstrates how it is done.

What short novel would you recommend?

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