Penelope Fitzgerald's books are small, perfect devastations of human hope and inhuman (ie, all-too-human) behaviour. The Bookshop
unfolds in a tiny Sussex seaside town, which by 1959 is virtually cut off from the outside English world. Post-war peace and plenty having passed it by, Hardborough is defined chiefly by what it doesn't have. It does have, however, plenty of observant inhabitants, most of whom are keen to see Florence Green's new bookshop fail.
But rising damp will not stop Florence, nor will the resident, malevolent poltergeist (or "rapper", in the local patois). Nor will she be thwarted by Violet Gamart, who has designs on Florence's building for her own arts series and will go to any lengths to get it. One of Florence's few allies (who is, unfortunately, a hermit) warns her: "She wants an Arts Centre. How can the arts have a centre? But she thinks they have, and she wishes to dislodge you."
Once the Old House Bookshop is up and running, Florence is subjected to the hilarious perils of running a subscription library, training a 10-year-old assistant and obtaining the right merchandise for her customers. Men favour works "by former SAS men, who had been parachuted into Europe and greatly influenced the course of the war; they also placed orders for books by Allied commanders who poured scorn on the SAS men, and questioned their credentials." Women fight over a biography of Queen Mary. "This was in spite of the fact that most of them seemed to possess inner knowledge of the court--more, indeed, than the biographer." But it is only when the slippery Milo North suggests Florence sell the Olympia Press edition of "Lolita" that Florence comes under legal and political fire.
Fitzgerald's heroine divides people into "exterminators and exterminatees", a vision she clearly shares with her creator--but the author balances disillusion with grace, wit and weirdness, favouring the open ending over the moral absolute. Penelope Fitzgerald's internecine if gentle world-view even extends to literature--books are living, jostling things. Florence finds that paperbacks, crowding "the shelves in well-disciplined ranks", vie with Everyman editions, which "in their shabby dignity, seemed to confront them with a look of reproach."
‘Its stylishness, and this low-voiced lack of emphasis are a pleasure throughout, its moral and human positions invariably sympathetic. But it is astringent too: no self-pity in its self-effacing heroine, who in a world of let-downs and put-downs and poltergeists, keeps her spirit bright and her book-stock miraculously dry in the damp, seeping East Anglian landscape.’ Isabel Quigley, Financial Times
‘Penelope Fitzgerald’s resources of odd people are impressively rich. Raven, the marshman, who ropes Florence in to hang on to an old horse’s tongue while he files the teeth; old Brundish, secretive as a badger, slow as a gorse bush. And this is not just a gallery of quirky still lives; these people appear in vignettes, wryly, even comically animated…On any reckoning, a marvellously piercing fiction.’ Valentine Cunningham, TLS