We missed the Penelope Fitzgerald boat the first time around. Don't ask us why. We were out that week. But someone we trust recently recommended The Bookshop, which serves as a great introduction to her work and is our newest Second Look recommendation.
Fitzgerald, who died in 2000 at the age of 83, was a literary late bloomer. Her first book, at 60, was her 1975 biography of Edward Burne-Jones, followed two years later by her first novel, The Golden Child. She won the National Book Critics Circle award in 1995 for The Blue Flower (which we're reading next) and won the Booker Prize in 1979 for Offshore. But it's her slender second novel that concerns us here today.
In a 2000 Guardian appreciation, Sebastian Faulks said "Reading a Penelope Fitzgerald novel is like being taken for a ride in a peculiar kind of car. Everything is of top quality - the engine, the coachwork and the interior all fill you with confidence. Then, after a mile or so, someone throws the steering-wheel out of the window."
That's an apt description of the story of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town. It would seem that nothing could be simpler but she encounters all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop.
Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work brings to mind Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Consider this arresting opening paragraph that beautifully and wittily sets the tone for all that follows:
In 1959 Florence Green occasionally passed a night when she was not absolutely sure whether she had slept or not. This was because of her worries as to whether to purchase a small property, the Old House, with its own warehouse on the foreshore, and to open the only bookshop in Hardborough. The uncertainty probably kept her awake. She had once seen a heron flying across the estuary and trying, while it was on the wing, to swallow an eel which it had caught. The eel, in turn, was struggling to escape from the gullet of the heron and appeared a quarter, a half, or occasionally three-quarters of the way out. The indecision expressed by both creatures was pitiable. They had taken on too much. Florence felt that if she hadn't slept at all – and people often say this when they mean nothing of the kind – she must have been kept awake by thinking of the heron.
There is a certain kind of reader for whom that opening image will be absolutely irresistible. And what wonderful names – Hardborough is hard, indeed, as Florence is set to learn. She's an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. She finds unlikely allies in an 11-year-old shopgirl and in the village's most eminent recluse, whom she consults on whether to stock Lolita (and who makes one of the most memorable exits in fiction). But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.