Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The Bermondsey Bookshop by Mary Gibson, an inspiring saga of working-class 1920s London

The Bermondsey Bookshop was a real place. During its nine-year existence (1921-30), the venue, under direction of the forward-thinking Ethel Gutman, provided working-class Londoners with literary and artistic sustenance through its reading room, author lectures, elocution lessons, drama readings, and other programming. Mary Gibson has taken this inspiring subject and woven it into a historical saga evoking an impoverished young woman’s dreams and struggles.

Kate Goss grows up in a violent household in South London’s Bermondsey district in the 1920s. Raised by her harsh Aunt Sylvie since her Romany mother’s death and her father’s abandonment for parts unknown, she’s forced to leave school and begin work at a tin factory, where the camaraderie is warm but the pay meager and the work brutally hard on young bodies. After a vicious fight with her cousin and aunt, 17-year-old Kate is thrown out and left to depend on her own resources and pluck – and the latter she has in abundance. She takes multiple jobs, including one as a cleaner at a bookshop catering to local residents, one meant to be “common ground for the Mean Streets and the Mayfairs.” Throughout, she dreams about her father returning and lifting her away from her dreary life.

Kate is initially suspicious of the shop’s kindly proprietor, Ethel Gutman, who treats her with respect and asks to be called by her first name, as if they were equals. Through her bookshop role, Kate makes connections that prove important: Johnny Bacon, her former schoolgirl crush, a dockworker who contributes articles to the quarterly Bermondsey Book; Nora, a French teacher; and Martin North, a wealthy woman’s artist nephew. It’s clear that Johnny and Martin will develop into rivals for Kate’s affections. Both are rounded characters with visible flaws, making Kate’s decision complicated.

Gibson plunges readers deeply into the crushing poverty of Bermondsey’s streets through Kate’s hand-to-mouth existence, including the exhaustion of fourteen-hour days and the “Monday morning fever” that soldering girls got from breathing metal dust. Kate has admirable energy and courage that see her through hard times – there are many – though has a blind spot where her missing father is concerned. The novel also shows how difficult bridging social divides can be. At times I found myself wishing that the bookshop was more central to the storylines, and the novel's ending feels a bit fragmented. But I found myself fully involved in Kate’s refusal to admit defeat, and appreciative of the chance to learn more about an innovative historical bookshop and its social success.


The Bermondsey Bookshop was published on 6 February by the UK publisher Head of Zeus. This review is the latest stop on the blog tour for the novel, and thanks to the publisher for approving me on NetGalley.

For more about the book:  Amazon UK | Amazon US | Amazon Canada | Amazon Aus | Goodreads.  Visit the author's website at marygibsonauthor.co.uk.

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