Book review: The Last Library by Freya Sampson

(courtesy Allen & Unwin)

In a lot of ways, grief essentially stops the clocks on our lives.

One minute, our life is humming along with all the usual happy bells and whistles, most importantly with the presence of that very special loved on, and the next? Well, it goes off a neverending cliff into a chasm from which it can, at first at least, feel impossible to climb out of and which stops any meaningful progress forwards.

Most people eventually find a way back to the land of the living, so to speak, and resume their lives, though it isn’t exactly like it once was, but some don’t, trapped in a grief-strewn place that locks into the calamitous time and place when their lives fell apart.

One of those people is June, a timid library assistant in the English village of Chalcot, who is the protagonist of Freya Sampson’s novel The Last Library, a feel good novel which welcomingly devotes a good deal of its time being clear about the salient fact that we don’t always simply bounce back from the cold, deadening hand of grief.

In June’s case, the period of emotional inertia has last eight long years as she’s mourned the loss of her feisty, book-loving librarian mum, a woman who was a force of nature and one of the most cared about figures in the village and without whom June feels such a totality of loss that everything she had dreamed and planned before her mother’s passing no longer has any appeal.

“The microwave pinged, making her jump. She fetched the lasagne and spooned it onto a plate, adding a few slices of cucumber as a garnish. Sitting down, she picked up her book. It was battered and worn from years of reading, the words Pride and Prejudice on the front cover barely legible now. Carefully, she opened it to read the inscription. 18th June 2005. To my darling Junebug. Happiest of twelfth birthdays. You are never alone when you have a good book. All my love, Mum xx

June ate a mouthful of food, turned to the first page and began to read.” (P. 7)

Her life, as a result is moribund; while she remains gainfully employed at the Chalcot library, where she cares for a quirky assortment of characters, her life otherwise is frozen in the past, captive to the grief which has subsumed her so completely that she has no real friends to speak of, and no social life or grand plans for the future.

In fact, the future doesn’t really exist as a concept at all for her; instead, she spends her nights and weekends locked away reading, not such a bad pursuit in and of itself, but when all you do is re-read the books you’re mum accumulated and placed on her shelf, surrounded by all the knick knacks she bought over the years, it’s not the healthiest of life choices.

June’s cosy sense of grief-induced fossilisation is rocked to the core when the local council announces a review of library services offered in Chalcot and five other centres, with the less-than-subtle subtext that they will likely be axed as soon as politically expedient.

The announcement mobilises the town, including regular users veteran social justice campaigner Mrs. Bransworth, 82-year-old crossword puzzle devotee Stanley Phelps, young students Jackson and Chantal and cranky Vera, a woman who gave up on life when her husband left her, and forces June to decide – will she run from the fight like she has so much else over the last eight years or will she stand up and fight?

Quite what June decides to do, and how it affects are, naturally enough best left to the reading of The Last Library, a novel which on the surface resembles one of those cosily redemptive novels at which the British excel, but which actually digs deep down in how grief can stop the clock on a person’s life.

If you have ever experienced grief and loss of the life disempowering kind, and really what other kind is there if you have a beating heart, you will find much with which to identify in SAmpson’s groundedly delightful novel.

For all of its light and airy touches, its quirky whimsicality which is given breath by a cast of well-realised, charmingly idiosyncratic but deeply human characters, The Last Library has a great deal of emotional weight and substance to it, searing your heart with some sagely-delivered, empathetically-expressed truths even as it hugs you with the happy truth of what is and what might be.

Much of that comes from June, who is the beating heart of the novel and the person to whom all of the other characters turn when they are either supportive of her or angry at her, depending on what’s happening with the library closure which is going to profoundly affect everyone for whom it’s a social centre.

It’s as an engine of social connectivity, learning and an escape from the rigours of real life that libraries are celebrated in The Last Library, meaning the novel is in many years a love letter of sorts to an institution which is under sustained attack by cash-strapped councils, many of them caught up in the idea that every service they provide must make money or somehow justify their existence by adherence to KPIs which often pay little heed to the more human aspects of their operation.

“He stopped talking and the room erupted into thunderous applause. June joined in with them, smiling at Mark as she did, and so it took a moment for her to realise that the cheers and clapping were for her.” (P. 355)

Regardless of where you sit on the ideological spectrum, what cuts through with The Last Library is the fact that so much of who we are and what makes us us comes the way we interact with others and libraries are inarguably the engines of those interactions for a great many people from newly-arrived immigrants to young mothers to lonely people looking for a lively place where they feel they belong.

Sampson brings this key part of why libraries exist to the fore, and in so doing helps explains why the library means so much to so many people in the novel and why they are willing to fight so hard to keep it around.

For June, however, the library means far more than that; it’s also a tangible link to her mother, a place that is home in many ways and the thought of it closing down is almost impossible to bear for her through most of the book.

But as the final decision by the council looms, June is forced to grapple with what she wants her life to look like, triggering a raft of epiphanic moments that reshape her and which restart her life in ways wondrously enlivening for her near-comatose existential state.

Watching her come back to life, and seeing many others awaken to what really matters to them, is a complete spirit-raising joy which means all the more because Sampson does not stint on the grim realities of life for many people and how something as seemingly old-fashioned as a library – they’re not of course but this distorted image of them somehow wrongly persists – and earns every last moment of the happy-ever-afters that pepper The Last Library‘s final, soul-uplifting act (though they are tempered by some grains of unopposable reality) and which elevate from undeniably cosy read to a book which has something meaningful to say and which leaves a lasting impression as a result.

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