The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald is set in the 1950s in a small coastal town in East Anglia where Florence decides to open a bookshop. The town doesn’t have a shop selling books, Florence has a little money and some past experience and there is an empty property waiting to be reused. Florence can’t see that there will be many problems, surely everyone wants a bookshop locally ?
This is a slight but compelling novel about how a small community tries to remove a shop that it doesn’t want and to thwart its owner. We are never quite sure exactly why the important local people don’t want the bookshop except that it wasn’t their idea and they had ill formed ideas about how they wanted to use the empty property. Florence has shown a degree of independent thought which is not encouraged in the local community and hasn’t subjected herself to the “superiority” of others.
The book has two aspects. The first is the struggle that Florence has to make the shop pay and to decide what books to stock. The descriptions of what books sell easily and which take longer are delightful. There is also description of the possibility of stocking Lolita which is newly published so that places the story’s date at about 1955. Florence enlists the help of a local recluse and a young girl becomes her assistant in the shop. The property is damp and she has a resident poltergeist to add to her troubles.
The second aspect to the story is the attempts by local people to get her to sell up and move to another property or town. These include reporting to her to the local authorities for her employment of a child and eventually passing acts of Parliament about buildings which have been unused to force her out.
Florence is strong and capable but will she succeed ? If this was a recently published book and described as Women’s Fiction you would know that despite the forces ranged against her that Florence would win a victory. But this is literary fiction and you have no such comfort so you need to follow the struggle through to the end.
This may be a short book but it is beautifully written. The descriptions are brilliant and the characters well-formed and interesting. There isn’t a word wasted and every sentence adds to the story. You will Florence to succeed whilst understanding the forces which wish the opposite. Some of the book is funny but a lot of it is tender and sad – don’t let that put you off though because this is a glorious book.