The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
A short book, first published in 1978, only 123 pages long, The Bookshop was just what was required. I wanted a book I knew I'd like but didn't necessarily need to be comforted by. And The Bookshop is a comfort in that it's exquisitely written, but it's certainly not neat and tidy and jolly and escapist. Florence Green, a widow with a small inheritance takes a risk and opens a bookshop in a small town. Which sounds lovely – but everything she does meets with a sort of 'soggy resistance' by the townspeople.
From the book jacket:
Hardborough becomes a battleground. Florence has tried to change the way things have always been done, and as a result, she has to take on not only the people who have made themselves important, but natural and even supernatural forces too. Her fate will strike a chord with anyone who knows that life has treated them with less than justice.
And life is certainly like that. Fitzgerald describes the fickle minor TV celebrity, the pushy and pompous, self-important arts advocate, the reclusive intellectual, with the perfect details so that they seem like people we know. It's simply a treat to read such well-drawn characters, even if they are lacking in integrity, prone to betrayal, quirky, and at times generally disappointing.
She visits Mr. Brundish, the recluse, to secure his opinion on her ordering a huge quantity of a new book: Lolita by Nabokov. Brundish has just told her that she possesses the quality which he most admires, courage.
She knew perfectly well, sitting in the dull afternoon light, with the ludicrous array of slop basins and tureens in front of her, that loneliness was speaking to loneliness, and that he was appealing to her directly.
The Bookshop, her first book, was published in 1978 when Fitzgerald was 61, and while it speaks quietly, it does so with great accuracy and feeling. The opening of the book is thus:
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.
James Wood's piece in The New Yorker titled "Late Bloom," on the Hermione Lee biography of Fitzgerald, has this to say about her work:
Authority is part of the obscure magic of her achievement as a novelist. If one of the commonest critical responses to her work seems to be laudatory bafflement—“How does she do it?”—the beginning of an answer is that she proceeds with utmost confidence that she will be heard and that we will listen, even to her reticence. Her fictions sit on the page with the well-rubbed assurance of fact, as if their details were calmly agreed upon, and long established.
There is such a beautiful realism that Fitzgerald achieves with relatively few scenes, or if you'd rather, brushstrokes, that I was captivated the entire time I read. Perhaps more than ever now, I'm searching for books that contain truths, however painful, and this is certainly one of them.