2021 was the year I discovered Penelope Fitzgerald, so I guess it wasn’t all bad.
‘The bookshop’ is a slight tale – middle-aged widow opens bookshop in small town on the Suffolk coast with mixed results. That’s it really. But within that Fitzgerald creates a a social world in microcosm, in a quite astonishing way. It’s such a short book, so it feels like a diorama or a snow globe, miniaturised anyway, but a complete little world while you’re peering in.
She has an amazing knack of bringing characters to life through just a telling remark or turn of phrase or little detail. She only ever sketches characters, but with one or two deft touches, they they are, fully formed. And there are a lot of characters, but all are equally well realised, from the helpful boy scout, the awkward young assistant, and the quietly hostile fellow shop-keepers, through to the officious self-appointed lady of the manor and her cronies. And as this might suggest, ‘The bookshop’ is very much about class.
In this sense, location is everything. The aptly-named Hardborough is a declining town in declining East Anglia. Part of it is already in the sea, and more will follow. Hardborough is physically and economically precarious; a waterway silting up or a railway station being closed down spell disaster. Although the bookshop and its lending library in particular are great social levellers in theory, class divides remain as strong as ever. A deeply poignant scene is the day of the Eleven-plus results, when children arrive at school to find either a white or brown envelope on their desk: white envelopes for those who passed and have a place at grammar school and a chance in life, brown for the rest. Their adult lives and fates are sealed. They don’t even bother opening the envelopes.
Fitzgerald does a nicely understated line in wry social comedy, and Mrs Green the bookshop owner is a canny observer as an outsider. She is quietly fearless, facing down the ghastly landed gentry, the mistrustful locals, and even the restless spirit haunting her shop. But it’s a novel about failure really, and a peculiarly British type of failure: not with a bang but damp, lonely and slowly crumbling. Just my kind of thing.