Book review: Found in a Bookshop by Stephanie Butland

(courtesy Hachette Australia)

We all crave somewhere to belong.

Somewhere where people know us, really know us, where we’re valued, our presence welcome and out absence sadly noted, and where, yes U.S. sitcom of legendary fame, everyone does indeed know our name.

That’s why we join clubs, churches, volunteer at soup kitchens and building houses for the disadvantaged, and why the disparate people in Stephanie Butland’s wondrously grounded novel, Found in a Bookshop, all gravitate to each other when, in the midst of the worst of the COVID pandemic, with lockdowns rife and opportunities for in-person connection abruptly curtailed, they need to feel a warm and inclusive sense of belonging more than ever.

Found in a Bookshop is, quite apart from its welcomingly fervent love of reading and books which is woven into every last paragraph and page, a declaration of how much we need to not just be with each other, but to be known, to be really known, and how while we might hold back for very good reasons at times, eventually we surrender our secrets because we know we have finally found people who will bear our burdens and whose burdens we can shoulder too if and when we are strong enough.

Placing this story in the midst of the pandemic may, you might think, run the danger of eventually dating it, but the truth is, there is such universality in the novel that it’s hard not to see being read in years to come by people who, whatever their isolating challenges, will be attracted to the idea of having people standing firmly and unconditionally in their corner.

Nathan says there’s no point in worrying about things you can’t control, and of course he’s right. But Loveday thinks, often, of the women she doesn’t know the names of, who used to come upstairs and sit in their reading refuge. She doesn’t know where they are, or what they are dealing with. She looks at Jane Austen’s words inked on her wrist, and hopes they are safe. Hope doesn’t feel like enough but she doesn’t know what else she can do.

A sequel of sorts of Butland’s Lost for Words novel, Found in a Bookshop evokes the power of storytelling; not just in the books we read but in the ones we tell ourselves and each other and how powerfully they can shape us for the better if we are brave enough to speak them or to listen to others share theirs.

What is so liberating about Found in a Bookshop is that as well evoking that glorious sense of enveloping safety and love that comes from finding a found family of kindred souls, and in many cases, the people in this novel are simply after books to buy until they find they need so much more, it doesn’t shy away from dark life can be.

It’s not just the privations of the pandemic that are explored in ways that will be intimately and affectingly familiar to anyone who lived through that period, and just a year or so on from the worst of it, that’s just about all of us, but also the issues that being apart from people in real life stoked, how it made us acutely aware of where our lives were deficient or where we needed to learn and grow some more.

The beauty of Found in a Bookshop is that it doesn’t pretend that lives change with the flick of a switch; rather, that with time and people around you, even the worst of situations can be remedied though not without some real pain and heartache in the interim.

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(courtesy official author site)

Cosy though Found in a Bookshop may be, and it is like that big immersive hug we all need to get through messy hell called life, it never shies away from the grim realities of life, starting with one of its central character couples, Rosemary and George.

Retired schoolteachers who regret giving away their entire library of much-loved books some years before, they are nearing the end of their lives, and deciding that they want to go on one last journey together, even if lockdowns prevent them from leaving their carefully-tended garden in Whitby (UK), they write to Loveday Carew’s beautiful Lost for Words bookshop and ask for books that will enrich and transport them the way reading has always done.

Theirs is probably the most poignant and resonant of stories but they are not alone in a book which takes the time to not only properly introduce you to its characters but to do so with empathy and a beautifully reassuring sense of what it means to be human and to know that life can be both upliftingly buoyant and crushingly harsh.

These are people who have experienced domestic violence, who are heartbreakingly lonely, who lose people to COVID or work in the health professions during an extremely dangerous time for anyone in healthcare, who find love and lose love and who need desperately to belong, to be cared for and for their lives to matter.

‘I’m proud of you,’ Nathan says. ‘What you’ve made her. It’s so much more than a bookshop.’

Loveday shakes her head, then rests her head against his shoulder. ‘Nothing is more than a bookshop.’

And she closes her eyes and wonders how many people there are, right now, turning the pages of a book that she and Archie, Kelly and Madison and Loveday and Sarah-Jane, have out in their hands.

For their stories to matter, and in Found in a Bookshop, which opens a book pharmacy which promises to match people with the books they need to help, and hopefully heal them, their stories matter a great deal, treasured as are all stories by people who know the value of losing yourself in a story but also in holding it close, in learning from it and letting it find its way into your hurting soul.

There are many books out there about bookshops which create found families and bind these disparate souls one to the other but there are very few like Found in a Bookshop which gives us the earthy fairytale of being loved and of belonging but doesn’t shy away from the fact that this doesn’t cure all ills and that the people in that orbit are better off certainly but not completely healed.

But, and this is vitally important, they are far better off with their bookshop family than without, and far richer and more alive for having been given books that take a life far beyond their words and give rise to new and different stories, their germ of a narrative giving rise to all kinds of good, and if not, better than the alternative, outcomes.

A love letter to life and reading and stories, Found in a Bookshop is a joy because in one of the darkest hours we have faced as a collective people, when connection is cut and belonging severed, at least physically, books and those love them guide lost souls home and restore them, and while not all hurts mended quickly or at all, there is something profoundly beautiful about being in the company of those who know you, know your story and know how valuable it is because to them all stories are magical and wonderful and worth treasuring, as are the people who hold them dear.

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