I picked up this attractive book in a recent visit to a second hand bookshop. Other than being aware of the author’s name I confess complete ignorance to Penelope Fitzgerald prior to reading this gloriously understated little book. This is a brief 156 page novel (perhaps that makes it a novella?) packed full of good things. It was first published in 1978 when it was nominated for the Booker prize and continues to feel fresh and relevant 37 years later.
Essentially this is the story of Florence Green and her attempt to open a book shop in the inward looking East Anglian Coastal town of Hardborough. She is met with open opposition and finds herself in a quiet tug of war with the local residents as she attempts to establish the shop as part of the fabric of the town. The insular nature of Hardborough is summed up perfectly here.
“The town itself was an island between sea and river, muttering and drawing into itself as soon as it felt the cold”
To help her with the day to day running of the shop Florence takes on 10 1/2 year old Christine. Christine dislikes books, in fact she only reads The Bunty. However she has a natural affinity to organisation and is in many ways mature beyond her years. Christine and Florence strike up an unlikely and ultimately protective partnership.
“At teatime next day a little girl of ten years old, very pale, very thin and remarkably fair, presented herself at the Old House. She wore a pari of jeans and a pink cardigan worked in a fancy stitch…….’You’re Christine Gipping aren’t you? I had rather thought that your elder sister….’
Christine replied that now the evenings were getting longer her elder sister would be up in the bracken with Charlie Cutts. In fact, she’d just seen their bikes stashed under the bracken by the crossroads.
‘You won’t have to worry about anything like that with me she added. I shan’t turn eleven till next April. Mine haven’t come on yet.’ “
This is a book full of extra characters. Each character has a particular place and function and none are superfluous to the story. We are gradually introduced to them in turn. From the bullying Mrs Gamart, to the insightful, sympathetic Mr Brandish they all help the reader understand Florence better; her defiance, her determination and her eventual acquiescence.
There is a bleakness about this story which may be off putting. The bleakness of the landscape, the murky undercurrents and the lack of imagination exhibited by the inhabitants of Hardborough. Do not let this put you off. There is much to mull over as you read this and contemplate the nature of small town life coupled with the quirkiness of folk.
Have you read other novels by Penelope Fitzgerald? Which would you recommend I read next?
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