One of the pleasures of dabbling in the law and literature field is finding an overlooked treasure. The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald is one such gem.
The Bookshop is the slow, graceful telling of Florence Green’s attempt to establish a bookshop in a quiet English town. Green is described as “small, wispy and wiry, somewhat insignificant from the front view, and totally so from the back.” She is a character to be ignored and bypassed by the social structure and politics of the town until she purchases a derelict, abandoned property to start her shop. Undeterred by the shop’s active haunting and inactive plumbing, Green soon finds herself at odds with the village doyenne and her vague but eventual plans to turn the building into an arts centre.
Thereafter, all manner of laws are brought forth to undermine Green and her fledgling business. The local fishing community claims an immemorial right to walk through her warehouse to get to the shore even though the warehouse does not lead to the shore. However, as her solicitor patiently explains, “rights were in no way affected by the impossibility of putting them into use.” She is threatened with a nuisance charge when her window display of Lolita draws a crowd that obstructs the sidewalk. She is even the direct target of obscure provisions added to new legislation passed by Parliament. Still she persists and the eventual result flows from a curious interlocking of the various legal pieces of the story.
The Bookshop earned Fitzgerald her first nomination for the Booker prize in 1978. She was awarded the Booker the following year for her next novel Offshore. She was nominated twice more before her death in 2000. The Bookshop is still available in paperback and should be widely available through libraries.