Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Books shine a light during dark times in The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin

As you can guess, Madeline Martin’s The Last Bookshop in London is a book about books. It celebrates the power of literature to whisk you out of “real life” and into a different, wholly realized world filled with characters you come to care about. Furthermore, it accomplishes this feat itself.

Martin is a prolific writer of historical romance; this is her first work of mainstream historical fiction, and I hope she stays in this new genre a while longer. Her story manages to be simultaneously inspiring and unflinchingly realistic in its depiction of Londoners enduring the Blitz.

In 1939, Grace Bennett and her best friend, Viv, leave their sleepy Norfolk village and head to London, where they share a room in the comfortable house owned by Mrs. Weatherford, a childhood friend of Grace’s late mother. They both need work, and Grace needs a reference, since her unpleasant uncle, whose shop she worked in, refused to give her one.

Mrs. Weatherford cajoles the grumpy proprietor of the Primrose Hill Bookshop, Mr. Evans, into employing Grace as an assistant for six months. He warns Grace not to get attached to the place, whose dusty, disorganized shelves have their own eccentric charm. Grace works hard in cleaning and rearranging the books, and one frequent customer, the handsome George Anderson, introduces her to the love of reading. As for Mr. Evans, one quickly suspects he has a soft heart under all the bluster.

Through Grace, Martin presents an on-the-ground view of London’s people and streets as the rumbles of war grow louder. Men are called up, including Mrs. Weatherford’s gentle son; children line up to be evacuated to the countryside; wives and mothers join service organizations while worrying about their loved ones’ safety. Many images here will stay with me, thanks to well-placed period details. We see the white chairs and bright yellow towels in Mrs. Weatherford’s homely kitchen and the Anderson air-raid shelter (the “Andy”) in her back garden. During the Blitz, as German bombs fall, we see the various ways Londoners react to these devastating strikes on their neighborhoods: some readily seek shelter, while others, tired of these nightly occurrences, start refusing to leave their homes.

Through it all, Grace and her customers take refuge in stories, which they find a wonderful distraction. We get to experience the appeal of many classic novels as Grace discovers them for herself. Being interested in literary history, I found it especially enlightening to learn about the new books that became top sellers at the bookshop, which ones flopped, and why. After reading about it here, Winifred Holtby’s South Riding is the latest addition to my to-be-read stack.

It’s not surprising that The Last Bookshop in London has been on bestseller lists. It’s an absorbing crowd-pleaser of a novel about preserving hope during dark times, a theme that many of us today can get behind.

The Last Bookshop in London was published by Hanover Square in April. Thanks to the publisher for approving a NetGalley copy.

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