“The Bookshop” is a Haunting Tale of Dangerous Dreams

If you’re thinking of watching The Bookshop starring Emily Mortimer and Bill Nighy on Amazon Prime, wait. Read the short novel it’s based on first.  The movie adds touches of romance and intensifies Penelope Fitzgerald’s drama in ways that don’t betray the novel, but do make the story less subtle.  More than that, the dispassionate, incisive narrative is gone, with the exception of some voice overs.

This short novel contains a world of heartbreak and cruelty.   In the late 1950s, Florence Green decides to live her dream and open a book shop in a small English coastal town.  The building she chooses for her home and business is damp, decayed, and mournful.  Her courage seems more like naivety.

Though the shop seems to start off well, the portents are not good from the very beginning.  The town seems a dead end and suffers regular devastation.  Its name is warning enough: Hardborough.

“The town itself was an island between sea and river, muttering and drawing into itself as soon as it felt cold.  Every fifty years or so it had lost, as though careless or indifferent to such things, another means of communication.  By 1850 the [river] had ceased to be navigable and the wharfs and ferries rotted away.  In 1910 the swing bridge fell in, and since then all traffic had to go ten miles round by Saxford in order to cross the river.  In 1920 the old railway was closed….The great floods of 1953 caught the seas wall and caved it in, so that the harbour mouth was dangerous to cross, except at very low tide.”

Later on we learn that new homes have been and washed out to sea by erosion, a force that works on Florence herself.

In a town this besieged and small, everyone knows every step Florence takes.  More and more it seems people are leagued against her, egged on by a wealthy doyenne who says she wants the house Florence has leased to become an arts center–that’s supposedly her dream.  But what this arbitrary, rich woman really wants is to deny anyone else a place of even minor honor and notoriety.  She dreams about power, not culture.  She employs rumor and worse to get her way and to ruin Florence, whose love of books is overflowing, but whose knowledge of the world is very flawed.

Fitzgerald excels at small, cutting descriptions of people, like this one about Milo North, someone vaguely employed by the BBC who worms his way into Florence’s life:

“What seemed delicacy in him was usually a way of avoiding trouble; what seemed like sympathy was the instinct to avoid trouble before it started…His emotions, from lack of exercise, had disappeared almost altogether.  Adaptability and curiosity, he had found, did just as well.”

The movie gives viewers a sort of happy or redemptive ending, but the novel is hauntingly unsparing–and Florence’s home itself is haunted.  Though The Bookshop is quite short, there’s an epic feel to this rich and thoughtful novel that might make you want to read it again as soon as you’re done.

Lev Raphael teaches one-on-one online workshops at  writewithouborders.com.  He’s the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.

 

Guest Blog: How Should Women Authors Write About Crimes Against Women?

Women crime writers have reacted in outrage to the Staunch Book Prize, a UK award for “a novel in the thriller genre in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.” Internationally acclaimed author Val McDermid’s comment: “Baby, bathwater.”

One of my first thoughts was that if you eliminate fiction about crimes against women, you’re left with male on male violence—war stories are the ultimate example—and crimeless fiction. That’s not true. The 2018 prize went to Australian writer Jock Serong’s On the Java Ridge, described as a “literary political thriller” that presents an “anguishing portrayal of world refugee crises.” It sounds like a fine book. Reviewers also called it “dystopian,” a “novel about sibling rivalry, family, masculinity, and the game of cricket,” and a “noir tour de force.” In other words, it’s the kind of book that male writers write that absolutely must be balanced by crime fiction in women’s voice about women’s experience.

This is precisely the reason I decided readers needed my new anthology, Me Too Short Stories. The subject—crimes against women, tales of retribution and healing. Full disclosure: I needed such an anthology, because neither my usual short story markets such as Ellery Queen’s and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazines nor the noir e-zines that published darker fare were likely to want my latest story, “Never Again.” Why not? Because the first-person protagonist is a molested child, a fourteen-year-old girl whose father has been raping her since she was four. As a therapist for thirty-five years, I can assure you this is not uncommon.

What we need to object to is the graphic, lovingly depicted presentation of violence toward women—the serial killer’s point of view, the description of a rape, the beauty of blood spatter and a victim’s terror. Instead, e-zines whose guidelines invite submitters to bring on the horror, crudity, and gore, have a single caveat: No child abuse. (Oh, and no animal abuse, but that’s another story.) Noir editors seem to think avoiding the topic of child molestation entitles them to a white hat in the matter.

The Me Too Short Stories call for submissions—to women authors only, because I wanted maximum authenticity of voice—mentioned only “crimes against women.” Yet almost half of the stories in the anthology involve children. It’s not surprising, considering that child abuse is the seed from which adult violence grows in the form of both abusers and victims. Children are vulnerable by definition. Their protectors may be absent or neglectful or impaired. Or these protectors may themselves be at the mercy of those who have physical, emotional, social, or economic power over them.

When I added a second protagonist to my “Never Again” story, I made her an adult married to an abusive alcoholic. But her secret “me too” story started at age nine, when the preacher’s son molested her. Now he’s a deacon in the church the whole town attends, and her shame is expressed in fat and compulsive eating. This too, all of it, happens in real life.

Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology was created to give me and the other contributors the chance to write about violence toward women and girls not with loving emphasis on our pain and helplessness but by making them the protagonists, giving them a voice, showing the reader their courage and survival. That is how I think crime writers, men and women, can contribute to new attitudes toward violence against women.

Elizabeth Zelvin is the editor of Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology. She is also author of the Bruce Kohler Mysteries and the Mendoza Family Saga, a Jewish historical series, and editor of Where Crime Never Sleeps. Her short stories have been nominated three times each for the Derringer and Agatha awards and have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine among others. Her author website is http://elizabethzelvin.com. Liz is a psychotherapist who lives in New York and treats clients online at LZcybershrink.com.