Reviewed by Jodie
Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop is a quiet damnation of what society is doing to the spirit of individual enterprise. Florence Green opens a bookshop in an old house that has stood derelict for years and as soon as she does the majority of the residents in Hardborough decide that a bookshop is the last thing they want in their town. Through a series of ridiculous, petty maneuvers they try to undermine and close her bookshop, reflecting the way that society crushes the spirit of independent ventures with unnecessarily tedious interpretations of rules.
The most disturbing thing about the campaign to close the bookshop is that no one involved has a good reason for wishing it closed. There is half-hearted talk of an arts centre that Violet Gamart, town social climber, wants to open in the premises the shop occupies but this feels like a spurious reason as it is constructed in haste at a party. As the operation to keep Florence’s venture from succeeding gathers followers the arts centre becomes the justifying reason that Florence’s opponents cluster around to support the menace and dirty tactics they aim at the bookshop. The drive behind the townspeople’s campaign is to close the bookshop because of small minded dislike not to open an arts centre because it they are passionate about having one.
Fitzgerald fills this book with scenes that could be slap stick, like when Florence and a friend file a horse’s teeth:
Once released, the horse sighed cavernously and stared at them as though utterly disillusioned. 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.
Instead Fitzgerald invests these events with an elegiac dignity and reserves her touch of stinging comedy for the absurd behaviour of the people who oppose the bookstore. On receiving a letter from her solicitor who is no longer acting in her best interests Florence embarks on a written battle that illustrates the silly, stretched thinking of those she is fighting with.
Fitzgerald invests the small details of every day with monumental importance but keeps them from being forced on the reader’s attention, by using precise, purposeful prose to describe them "quote" . Every sentence in The Bookshop is measured and every word is placed with an exactitude, that creates a practical, knowledgeable tone which skillfully avoids becoming prim. This highly structured writing reflects the personality of the main character who is reserved and traditional but also intelligent and kind.
It seems that Florence’s dream is vitally undermined by the mysterious and subtly threatening Milo North who allows her enemies into her shop and counsels her to sell controversial literature like ‘Lolita’. Mr North is a nebulous creature whose exchanges with Florence always carry a threatening hint. The specifics of his life is unknown and at times he bears a strong resemblance to a supernatural devil or demon. He meddles in things with little apparent motivation, perhaps because he is abstractedly interested in seeing himself do these things, but does not really care what the consequences are. His character is evoked by a series of oblique conversations events, like Florence finding him and his girlfriend Kattie who is weak and has been crying. The reader is always wary of him but while Florence is apprehensive she still allows him to help out in her shop, enabling him to betray her. Mr North’s inclusion, along with the introduction of the "rapper" that haunts Florence’s flat, gives sections of the novel a tone of palpable menace which complements the actions of the townspeople.
While Mr North and the rapper are intimidating they are rather malign forces compared to Mrs Gamart and her supporters. The ghost bangs around the house and Mr North allows surveyors into the shop but the townspeople launch all the destructive actions against Florence from legal action to encouraging a competing chain bookstore to trade in the town. The more supernatural elements of the novel have less effect on the future of Florence’s business than the supposedly less frightening humans. This picture of a small town filled with small minds is a valuable reminder of the possibility of evil that lives in some ordinary people.