I wrote a book chapter about Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore, and have been working my way through her oeuvre ever since. On a recent trip to Aldeburgh, what could be more appropriate than to pick up in the delightful bookshop there, Fitzgerald’s novel of one woman’s attempt to run a bookshop in a fictional coastal east Anglian town?
Like all her other novels, this is a bittersweet joy. The widow Florence Green decides that Hardborough (a fictional amalgam of, as far as I can make out from my limited experience of Suffolk, Aldeburgh and Dunwich)needs a bookshop, and she sets about converting a semi-derelict old house into one. The novel’s action – and, as is the case with PF’s other novels, there isn’t much- revolves around the town’s increasingly devious attempts to sabotage her enterprise. The late-fifties small town atmosphere is conveyed with precision, but with no apparent literary flourishes. As A.S. Byatt says, “how does she do it?” The venal Milo North, the snobbish Mrs Gamart and the misanthropic Mr Brundish are all convincingly drawn denizens of the town. My favourite character, though, was Florence’s ten-year old assistant, Christine Gipping, another one of Fitzgerald’s wise and prematurely old children.
The house is haunted by a rapper (and mercifully, this is a not a misogynistic gangster, but a dialect term for a poltergeist), whose presence punctuates the plot at key moments. There’s a wonderful comic set piece scene where Florence decides that the town needs to be exposed to Lolita, and thus hardens the determination of her opposition. It seems slight – you could read it in one sitting – but like Fitzgerald’s other works, it remains with you, because it has the ring of authenticity.
By the way, what an example for budding novelists- Fitzgerald didn’t start writing novels until she was sixty, but still managed a Booker prize, two nominations, and a fanatically devoted following, of whom I am one.
The Bookshop by Dr Rob Spence is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.