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The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

From Brick 91

Brick 91

I first read Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels in 1999 when my son was a newborn. Each book is so short it can be easily held in one hand, the pages turned with the thumb, perfect for breastfeeding. Short they may be, yet their range is broad—Italy, Germany, Russia, England; the eighteenth century to the 1960s. Recently I decided to reread them, starting for no reason with The Bookshop, a semi-autobiographical novel set in 1959. Like all of Fitzgerald’s writing, The Bookshop is a triumph of style over plot. Widowed, middle-aged Florence Green opens the only bookshop in a small English town, braving opposition that includes a politically connected socialite and an adamant poltergeist. Despite help from Nabokov (well, Lolita) and her hard-boiled ten-year-old paid assistant, Christine, Florence fails.

Postpartum is an emotional time; the endings of Fitzgerald’s delicate, astonishing books moved me particularly during those months. I remember my husband, accustomed by then to my frequent tears, coming into the room where I was both nursing the baby and saturating him as I sobbed. “What now?” he asked, bewildered.

Rereading The Bookshop, I knew, of course, that Florence’s shop would close, but I was not prepared for that forgotten last line:

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

Here we have the sadness of a sad ending, as well as the general melancholy we feel when we turn the last page of any book we’ve loved. On top of that, there is the sting of prescience. Thirty-five years ago when The Bookshop was first published, Fitzgerald couldn’t have foreseen how commonplace the shame she describes would become. Here in Vancouver, Duthie Books, which had grown into a local chain, closed its last store after more than fifty years in business. Ardea Books, which had hoped to fill the Duthie void, closed within a year. All but one store in the Book Warehouse chain closed. Sophia Books closed. Black Sheep Books closed.

Let us all bow our heads every time we pass through a town without a bookstore, or a neighbourhood where once one was.

Caroline Adderson reads and writes in Vancouver.

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