"The Bookshop" is set in the Suffolk seaside town of Hardborough, ostensibly fictitious but in fact clearly based upon Southwold where Penelope Fitzgerald herself once lived. The plot, which takes place in 1959/60, is a simple one. Florence Green, a middle-aged widow, purchases the Old House, a mediaeval building in the town, and converts it into a bookshop, the town's first. At first Florence's enterprise prospers, but she is finally thwarted by the malice of the town's most influential citizen, the wealthy Mrs Violet Gamart, who has taken a dislike to her and who has ambitions of her own to turn the Old House into an arts centre. (The real Southwold, in fact, has several bookshops and has always struck me as a rather literary and artistic place; it counts among its former residents not only Mrs Fitzgerald but also George Orwell).
One reviewer complained that this was "more of a vignette than a novel". There may be some truth in that observation, but I would think of it more in terms of a novella or long short story. I was reminded of some of Balzac's "Scenes de la Vie Provinciale". It is a book where atmosphere is more important than plot, and Mrs Fitzgerald excels at conjuring up the often melancholy atmosphere of coastal Suffolk (an area I know well). The town is damp, mist-shrouded and surrounded by marshes; she describes it as "an island between sea and river, muttering and drawing into itself as soon as it felt the cold". The Old House is ramshackle, leaky and haunted by a poltergeist, or "rapper" in the local dialect. Florence's main ally in her struggle with Mrs Gamart is Edmund Brundish, a member of a distinguished old Suffolk family. The Brundishes, however, have been supplanted as the leading family in the neighbourhood by the parvenu Gamart outsiders, and the elderly, shabby, reclusive Edmund lives alone in a crumbling manor house, the descriptions of which add to the general mood of decline and decay.
Like some other reviewers, I found the ending rather abrupt as Florence's hopes suddenly collapse in the space of a single chapter. Although Florence is the main character, she is not as vividly drawn as some of the others. I wished the author had paid more attention to the devious and obsessively spiteful Violet Gamart, clearly a much stronger character than her hapless victim Florence and more potentially interesting. Legal affairs play an important part in the book, but the author's knowledge of the law is not always certain. An "indictment", for example, is a document used in criminal proceedings, not civil ones which would be started by a writ or summons. I found it difficult to believe that a local authority would be able to acquire a property compulsorily without paying compensation; the acquiring authority would be obliged to pay the market value of the land, with allowance made for any defects. Seen as a piece of atmospheric writing, "The Bookshop" is a fine work. Seen as a piece of storytelling it is perhaps less accomplished.