The Bookshop (1978) is a rather short novel by contemporary British author Penelope Fitzgerald. If it wasn’t labeled a novel by the author herself, I would be inclined to call it a novella – it is a short (123 pages), intensive study of a single episode: the creation and downfall of a bookshop in the coastal town of Hardborough. This book was brought to my attention by Simon over at Stuck in a Book. His review focuses on the sparseness of the prose and the relationship between the shop owner and the girl who works there as an assistant; my attention when reading this book was caught more by the parallels between characters and place and by the poltergeist as a symbol. If you want to hear about the former, go read Simon's excellent review! Mine won't duplicate his topics.
In this novel, widow Florence Green has decided that living on the small pension left by her husband is not enough to fulfill her daily life. After some indecision and worrisome dreams, Florence takes out a loan and purchases the Old House, a damp, weather-worn property which she turns into the only bookstore in Hardborough. Despite a few minor setbacks, the bookstore seems initially moderately successful. With the help of a young assistant and an accountant, Florence navigates the politics that come of being a new shop in a small town and introduces some new books to the isolated area (such as Nabokov’s Lolita, which I expected to cause far more of a scandal!) But the truth is that success breeds resentment, and that some people don’t realize how much they want something until it is taken from their jealous grip. The back cover says, “a town that lacks a bookshop isn’t always a town that wants one.” It would be more accurate to say that this is a book examining the determination of one covetous woman in a position of power. Mrs Gamart, you see, wants the Old House for an arts centre, but only latched onto this plan after the property was no longer vacant. “What else do people think the Old House could be used for?” Florence asked of the bank manager when first obtaining her loan. “Why haven’t they done anything about it in the past seven years? There were jackdaws nesting in it, half the tiles were off, it stank of rats. Wouldn’t it be better as a place where people could stand and look at books?” (10).
As in Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs (you can read my review here), the characters of The Bookshop are shaped by their environment. The physical reality of the town plays a vital role in the formation of the personalities of its inhabitants. “The town itself was an island between sea and river, muttering and drawing into itself as soon as it felt the cold. Every fifty years or so it had lost, as through careless or indifferent to such things, another means of communication” (12). Ferries, bridge, railway, and sea wall alike fall into disrepair, until the town is reachable only via rowing-boat. Thus, until the appearance of Florence’s bookshop, which draws some outside traffic, most of the people of Hardborough remain completely isolated from other people and places. There are many different responses to this isolation. Some, like Mrs Gamart and Jessie Welford, who owns the dressmaker’s shop next door to the Old House, become jealous of the success of others. Mr Brundish, who by all accounts, is himself the town, secludes himself in a large old house. Others, like Raven, the vet, respond to the stark environment by clinging to community, giving of themselves for their neighbors.
In refusing to bow to the unspoken demands of her community, Florence is flouting age-old tradition and must be dealt with. It’s not just that Florence won’t give up her business and move away so that the Old House can be turned into the arts centre.So many of the small choices she makes anger the town. She refuses to allow fishermen to freely use her oyster warehouse; she switches to a mainland soliciter; she refuses to allow local artists to sell their paintings through her shop. Community members react by working to undermine Florence’s livelihood in so many subtle ways. They cause Florence’s employment of eleven-year-old Christine Gipping to be investigated by an Inspector from the Educational Authority, and begin a civil action suit complaining that Florence’s shop-window display of new copies of Lolita is causing a road obstruction. Florence is up against an insurmountable tide of dissatisfaction, well-funded and well-connected, and her eventual forced eviction seems unstoppable. The final circumstances, however, are worse even than I expected, and I was left angry at the callous inhuman greed of humanity.
The poltergeist haunting the Old House is a potent symbol of…what? The disruptive presence of this “rapper,” who bangs on pipes and causes general, sometimes frightening mischief, could be interpreted in many ways. I thought at first that the rapper is the physical manifestation of the townsfolks’ enmity and their desire to push Florence out of her community. After all, Florence takes on the poltergeist by renting the Old House in the first place, despite not-so-subtle hints that her plan is disliked by Mrs Gamart. On the other hand, the rapper grows quieter and less present as the book goes on. It almost seems to disappear entirely as plans against Florence evolve and the law allowing Florence to be forcibly evicted is passed. Does the poltergeist, then, represent the passive desires and latent anger of Florence’s opponents, and its presence becomes unneeded as they take action? Or is it the embodiment of honest, hard work, since the rapper engages with Florence without deceit? I’d be interested to know what you think, especially the thoughts of anyone who has read the book more than once and can better make connections between the events of the beginning and end.