Details: (c) Penelope Fitzgerald 1978; Pub Flamingo 1989; ISBN 0-00-65434-5
Verdict: The bookshop is well crafted but very downbeat.
Reasons for reading it: I can't remember whether Fitzgerald is an author I like, or someone with a similar name to an author I like, or someone I've just picked up positive vibes about, but anyway. A vague positive feeling about the author combined with a very enticing title led me to this book.
How it came into my hands: RS has a big hamper of English books that her expat community have read and no longer want, and was very insistent that her Thanksgiving guests should take lots of these books away with them.
I read The bookshop because I wanted something cheering, and a book about a bookshop sounded like just the thing. Unfortunately, The bookshop is a tragedy, about the bookshop and several lives being destroyed. But it succeeds in being sad rather than depressing, and the quality of the writing is cheering in its own right even if the subject matter isn't. It's one of those remote Fenland settings (has anyone ever written a happy book set in the Fens?) with a really evocative sense of place and village life. It doesn't bother with flights of poetry; it's a very understated book, but extremely atmospheric at the same time.
The characterization is marvellous, and there's a lovely inexorability about how thoughtlessness as much as active evil can lead to innocent people getting hurt. It's making some political points, but doing so very subtly and with some really biting understated satire rather than polemic. I think its political agenda is part of the setting (as opposed to simply being dated); the issues are those of its 1959 setting, and I think most of them would have been irrelevant even in 78. In many ways it's a book about poverty, but without any Dickens-style patronizing sentimentalism.
All in all, a thought-provoking book, and it says a lot in a very small space; at 100 pages it's barely more than a novella.