Tom Hope doesn’t think he’s much of a farmer, but he’s doing his best. He can’t have been much of a husband to Trudy, either, judging by her sudden departure. It’s only when she returns, pregnant to someone else, that he discovers his surprising talent as a father. So when Trudy finds Jesus and takes little Peter away with her to join the holy rollers, Tom’s heart breaks all over again.
Enter Hannah Babel, quixotic small town bookseller: the second Jew—and the most vivid person—Tom has ever met. He dares to believe they could make each other happy.
But it is 1968: twenty-four years since Hannah and her own little boy arrived at Auschwitz. Tom Hope is taking on a battle with heartbreak he can barely even begin to imagine.
This is not really a book about a bookshop.
But the lost and broken hearted are everywhere.
If you’re looking for another 84 Charing Cross Road or The Little Paris Bookshop or The Storied Life of A J Fikry, then this is not it. However if you enjoy gentle historical fiction full of love, tenderness and beautiful scenes of Victorian country life, you’ve found a winner.
Despite a tendency towards melodrama, Hillman undoubtably writes a lovely description and captures the emotional truth of each of his characters.
Hillman has previously written the biographies of three Holocaust survivors – all women – so he is pretty well placed to write a sympathetic and accurate story about another such woman. It’s not the first time that a bookshop setting has been used to represent culture and civilisation as a counterpoint against a time, person or place that is the complete opposite. But it is a useful, hopeful way of showing us how the better side of human nature triumphs over the worst.
In the Reading Guide for the Canadian edition of his book, Hillman said,
…victory. In the life of all Jews who outlived those who wished to murder them and found the courage to embrace life again, a victory is recorded. For me, every lovingly maintained bookshop is also a victory over all that is dowdy and dumb in the world.
The titular bookshop is more of an idea than the actual setting of the story, though.
The main backdrop for the story is Tom Hope’s farm in country Victoria, in the fictional town of Hometown (I did wonder if he was giving a nod to Hopetoun? But don’t know the area well enough to recognise the geographical mentions).
Hannah’s bookshop may be a place of courage and ideas, but Tom’s place is all about the heart and soul. It’s a place to heal, to belong and to feel safe. All the main characters in the story are lost and damaged, one way or another. There are varying degrees of tragedy and trauma explored. Whether it’s at the hands of a Christian fundamentalist cult, a deranged gunman, a thoughtless wife and mother, a revolutionary mob or Adolf Hitler. However, Hillman also said that,
it would be grotesque to suggest that the suffering of Hannah at the hands of the SS could be compared to Tom’s sorrow when Peter is taken away. People can recover from a broken heart, but the particular circumstances of Hannah’s heartbreak—no. The issue is not “recovery” but whether a commitment to life might allow a person to bear a terrible burden and still see the poetry in the world.
It is that commitment to life, that this gives this gentle story a little something special. It’s easy to say that good will triumph over evil, that education will win out over ignorance and that kindness will oust brutality, but how? It doesn’t just happen. You have to decide to make it happen. A life well-lived is the best victory of all.
- Longlisted for the Australian Book Industry Award, Small Publishers’ Book of the Year, 2019
- “Happiness, for Tom, was a fugitive; when it appeared, it had to be roused to confidence, encouraged. Anything too gaudy and it might slip back into the shadows, perhaps forever.”
- “He felt like a great block of stone talking to her, but she was interested in him, that’s what it felt like. He had never before in his life been made to feel interesting.”