On the heels of The Blue Flower (1997), hem's a slighter, equally
charming, half as deep little novel - about snobbery and meanness
in the provinces - that the immensely gifted Fitzgerald published
in England in 1978. It's 1959, and the "small, wispy and wiry"
Florence Green, a widow and middle-aged, wants to open a bookshop
in the little, bleak, remote, sea-swept East Anglian town of
Hardborough. And so she borrows money to buy her stock and, as a
place to house both it and herself, the High Street building known
as Old House, over half a millennium old and faultless except for
being damp and haunted. But as Mr. Raven, the marshman, says,
Florence "don't frighten," which is why he has her hold onto a
horse's tongue while he files its teeth. What Florence hasn't
counted on, though, is the studied malevolence of Hardborough's
social illuminary and civic leader, Mrs. Gamart, who now says she
wanted Old House for an "arts centre." And things, indeed, start
going wrong for Florence - not from the real ghost, who seems
frightening but harmless, but from inexplicable changes in statute,
policy, and law. When Florence is tipped off by a slippery ex-BBC
employee that she ought to stock Lolita, she questions only whether
it's a "good book" - and so she asks the town's one true
aristocrat, the dour Edmund Brundish, veteran of WW I. He says it's
good (though he dies soon after), but Florence's troubles still
grow only worse, both before and after Nabokov sells out. Readers
will learn the sorry end, while enjoying on the way a wondrous cast
of townsfolk, including Florence's assistant, the sweetly tough
Christine Gipping, who, at 11, as Florence says, "has the ability
to classify, and that can't be taught," though she does make an
error (true human style) that costs dear. Pitch-perfect in every
tone, note, and detail: unflinching, humane, and wonderful. (Kirkus
Penelope Fitzgerald's wonderful Booker-nominated novel. This,
Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel, was her first to be shortlisted
for the Booker Prize. It is set in a small East Anglian coastal
town, where Florence Green decides, against polite but ruthless
local opposition, to open a bookshop. 'She had a kind heart, but
that is not much use when it comes to the matter of
self-preservation.' Hardborough becomes a battleground, as small
towns so easily do. Florence has tried to change the way things
have always been done, and as a result, she has to take on not only
the people who have made themselves important, but natural and even
supernatural forces too. This is a story for anyone who knows that
life has treated them with less than justice.
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