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Booker Prize for Fiction > 1978 Shortlist: The Bookshop

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message 1: by Trevor (last edited Oct 04, 2016 11:45AM) (new)

Trevor (mookse) | 1842 comments Mod
The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Bookshop

1978
123 pp

In 1959 Florence Green, a kindhearted widow with a small inheritance, risks everything to open a bookshop - the only bookshop - in the seaside town of Hardborough. By making a success of a business so impractical, she invites the hostility of the town's less prosperous shopkeepers. By daring to enlarge her neighbors' lives, she crosses Mrs. Gamart, the local arts doyenne. Florence's warehouse leaks, her cellar seeps, and the shop is apparently haunted. Only too late does she begin to suspect the truth: a town that lacks a bookshop isn't always a town that wants one.


message 2: by Paul (new)

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8740 comments Wonderful little gem - beautifully observed slice of life from rural Suffolk as the heroine tries to introduce a bookshop, and Nabokov's Lolita, against the carefully crafted resistance of the local worthies.

My favourite line "the church had, in fact, been carelessly burnt down during the celebrations of 1925, when the Sugar Beet Subsidy Act had been passed." Wonderful. I grew up in a similar area in Norfolk and that would indeed have been a heady day.


message 3: by Hugh (new)

Hugh (bodachliath) | 3164 comments Mod
It does have some great comic moments, like the one Paul mentions, but for me the abiding memory of this book is of the bleakness of the setting and the overall sense of futility. The humour is very necessary to leaven the mood. Fitzgerald was such a versatile writer that it would seem wrong to judge her on just one book.


message 4: by Trevor (new)

Trevor (mookse) | 1842 comments Mod
I read and reviewed this in 2010.

After I read Penelope Fitzgerald’s Booker-winning Offshore, I realized I would have to read every book she published in that short but prolific burst of energy she displayed in the last twenty years of her life. I still can’t get over it: her first four books in four years (including the Booker winner and a Booker finalist), with the next five coming in the next fifteen years (including two more Booker finalists and one — The Blue Flower — which a Booker judge regrets was never submitted and so was passed up). The Bookshop was her second book and her first Booker finalist. I think I liked it even more than Offshore, which is saying quite a bit.

Like Offshore, The Bookshop is a fine look into a small, somewhat isolated community. In this case we are in the town of Hardborough, a seaside town in Eastern England that doesn’t have a bookshop. In 1959, Florence Green is hoping to change that and make a success of one. In a great display of precision and control, the first couple of paragraphs set up the novel and its theme of survival.

"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."


As dismal as that sentiment is, one might simply pass over it because Fitzgerald’s writing is dense and, strangely, urgent. Furthermore, this line is couched in a paragraph about how Mrs. Green is attempting to “make it clear herself, and possibly to others, that she existed in her own right,” since she had been living on the little money her husband left her when he died. So we come to that passage above thinking — at least I did — that this focus on survival was necessary and, perhaps, noble. However, through the rest of this short, brilliant novel, Fitzgerald shows that the way this small community survives is through a form of social warfare as sensible as king of the mountain. Here is one of Fitzgerald’s earliest descriptions of Mrs. Green:

"She had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation."


Nevertheless, after many sleepless nights of indecision, Mrs. Green purchases Old House, which is, as the name suggests, one of the town’s oldest buildings. It’s damp and leaky and possibly haunted (a fact which remains in the background, but that gives Fitzgerald moments to display her humor: “The house agent was in no way legally bound to mention the poltergeist, though he perhaps alluded to it in the phrase unusual period atmosphere.”).

The bookshop has its ups and downs, but it is, nevertheless, a moderate success. And this frightens several of the townspeople. For one thing, there’s some jealousy from those doing more poorly, like Mr. Deben, who has been trying to sell his fish shop for several years. Why didn’t Mrs. Green buy his place. That might have benefited them both.

"Certainly she knew that Deben’s wet fish shop was about to close. Everybody in the town knew when there were likely to be vacant premises, who was in financial straights, who would need larger family accommodation in nine months, and who was about to die."


Basically, Mrs. Green didn’t want Deben’s wet fish shop, and she’s not entirely apologetic (she knows how to hold her own as well).

The biggest threat comes by way of Mrs. Gamart, who, if the town had one, would be part of the reigning aristocracy. Each summer, when other towns are holding their arts festivals, Mrs. Gamart believes that everyone should support her idea of creating an arts center in Hardborough. It always comes to nothing because before any steam has built up the other towns’ festivals have ended, and, presumably, Mrs. Gamart goes on to worry about other ways to ensure that she reigns over a respectable, cultured town.

Now Mrs. Green has purchased Old House, though, which is the perfect place for the arts center, Mrs. Gamart, as charming as ever, begins to turn the wheels on several machines meant to destroy Mrs. Green’s enterprise.

As in Offshore, though the story here is centralized and focused, Fitzgerald allows herself the liberty to take the reader on minor tangents to see the lives in Hardborough. Each character and each episode is so well developed that this short book contains more than most long books. And, because by the end Fitzgerald’s community has ceased to be a strange seaside town but is so real, so familiar, we echo Mrs. Green’s question: “What is natural justice?”


message 5: by Dan (new)

Dan Thanks to Trevor for this excellent review. I’ve read and enjoyed several Penelope Fitzgerald novels, including The Bookshop. Like the very best reviews, Trevor’s helped me to understand and appreciate The Bookshop even more than I already had.


message 6: by Susanne (new)

Susanne | 55 comments Great review! I really enjoyed the book- it's a testament that authors are able fit a lot in not so many pages. Another book that does so really well is Ebola 76 by Amir Tag ElSir.


message 7: by Nicole (new)

Nicole | 115 comments I've just finished this, my second Booker 1978 entry, so I am able to actually rank something.

I did enjoy this, but I think it's not as strong as the Gardham. Curiously, while I thought it was lacking some intangible thing that I cannot quite identify, I was strongly moved to want to read other things by this author. It seems contradictory, but there it is.


message 8: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Pool My second Booker 1978 too, like you Nicole!
I differ from you though, in that I preferred the Bookshop over God on the Rocks

My copy features an introduction from David Nicholls (best read last), and this is particularly insightful.

Fitzgerald scatters life insights and memorable aphorisms throughout the book. Referring to a horse: " From the depths of its noble belly came a brazen note, more like a trumpet than a horn, dying away to a snicker. Clouds of dust rose from its body, as though from a beaten mat".
To my mind Fitzgerald succeeds pretty well every time, by contrast with Rachael Cusk, who so often feels contrived and meaningless.
I would vote for this book in a n award contest; but only if it was a little longer.


message 9: by Hugh (new)

Hugh (bodachliath) | 3164 comments Mod
I didn't dislike this book, it's just that having read all of Penelope Fitzgerald's novels, there are several others that left a more lasting impression. This may be unfair because the previous two I read (Human Voices and The Gate of Angels) were among my favourites. Sometimes you can just be in the wrong frame of mind for a book. Mind you, as somebody who likes hills, I find descriptions of East Anglia inherently gloomy...


message 10: by Paul (last edited Nov 17, 2016 03:51AM) (new)

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8740 comments Hugh wrote: "Mind you, as somebody who likes hills, I find descriptions of East Anglia inherently gloomy.."

As someone who was brought up in rural East Anglia, I find hills inherently gloomy - "where God didn't do his ironing properly" we like to say. If God had meant us to live on hills we'd be goats.

And The Bookshop and Gate of Angels are my two personal favourite Fitzgerald novels because they are both settings which which I'm so familiar, although City of Angels is more accomplished.

On the length, I think that is one of Fitzgerald's strengths. In less than 200 pages she manages to tell a (simple) story, create an evocative sense of historical place, introduce us to some memorably baffling characters (often with one-line sketches) and explore a number of powerful themes. It does however mean that the plot and characters can develop rather obliquely but again that is part of the charm.


message 11: by Hugh (new)

Hugh (bodachliath) | 3164 comments Mod
Paul wrote: "where God didn't do his ironing properly"

This reminded me of the Biblical line, familiar from Handel's Messiah: "Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low"


message 12: by Nicole (new)

Nicole | 115 comments Paul wrote: "On the length, I think that is one of Fitzgerald's strengths. In less than 200 pages she manages to tell a (simple) story, create an evocative sense of historical place, introduce us to some memorably baffling characters (often with one-line sketches) and explore a number of powerful themes."

On this, I think I would add that there is a difference between length and scope or ambition (though of course the two are often closely linked). For me it's not so much that you can get through the book in a day, as it is that what goes on during that day doesn't quite match what I see happening in, say, A Five Year Sentence.

I'm having a similar reaction to Jake's Thing, which is a bit longer, but I think no more ambitious. (We'll see for sure once I've finished.)


message 13: by Paul (last edited Nov 17, 2016 05:06AM) (new)

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8740 comments Hugh wrote: "Paul wrote: "where God didn't do his ironing properly"

This reminded me of the Biblical line, familiar from Handel's Messiah: "Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be m..."


Exactly - Isaiah 40:4 to be precise - hills are clearly not meant to be there and part of the world's imperfections. [Actually for strict theological accuracy, the hills are levelled and valleys filled in to make a straight path]

Jonathan wrote: "To my mind Fitzgerald succeeds pretty well every time, by contrast with Rachael Cusk, who so often feels contrived and meaningless."

Full marks for getting in another Cusk dig! So in the same spirit I am obliged to say that Fitzgerald also manages in the 120 pages of The Bookshop to include more funny lines than the 2016 Booker winner.

Nicole wrote: "On this, I think I would add that there is a difference between length and scope or ambition (though of course the two are often closely linked). For me it's not so much that you can get through the book in a day, as it is that what goes on during that day doesn't quite match what I see happening in, say, A Five Year Sentence."

Fair point - and I think the Bookshop scores less well here vs. some of Fitzgerald's more ambitious novels.


message 14: by Amanda (new)

Amanda (tnbooklover) | 96 comments This one didn't quite gel for me. I had a hard time mustering any real interest in the characters or the story. I think my expectations may have been a bit too high. On paper it should have been a 5 star read for me.


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