Book review: The Librarianist by Patrick deWitt

(courtesy Bloomsbury Publishing)

Is it ever too late to turn your life around?

All too often we think it is, figuring far too much water has flowed under the bridge and we haven’t got a hope of diverting it or purifying it and that who we are now is whom we will forever be.

Certainly, Bob Comet, the protagonist of Patrick deWitt‘s wholly wonderful novel, The Librarianist, which possesses, hands down, this reviewer’s favourite and most inspired cover of the year (and we see a LOT of covers) thinks so, but then, he’s not especially worried about, not being unhappy about his small “l” life which involves living in a house he loves, reading the books he adores, and interacting with the world from a distance that suits him and his low-key personality.

With a surname that stands diametrically in opposition to his approach to life, Bob was a librarian, happy with the order provided by his work environment and pleased that he’s been able to help people in all kinds of ways over multiple decades in the job.

Now 71, the year 2005 sees him carrying on much as usual, his days spent reading and going on walks through his neighbourhood where, one day in a 7-11, he encounters an older woman who’s seem only capable of standing wordlessly in front of fridges and at bus stops, and who lives at a senior centre that soon becomes a second home to Bob who sees an opportunity to help and nothing more.

Bob was walking more quickly now, hurrying to reconnect with them; but long minutes were passing where he couldn’t see Connie and Ethan and though it wasn’t anyone’s fault, he felt he was being treated cruelly—that fate was behaving cruelly to him.

But then a curious thing happens – Bob starts to like the motley, quirky bunch of outcasts in a facility which needs more of just about everything from money to staff and beyond and the residents of which are from the lower rungs of society, short of money and options in a society (the novel is set in Portland, Oregon in the United States) and he decides to stick around unlike most volunteers even when his well-intentioned plan tp read to his new friends falls ingloriously apart.

There is a big surprise waiting for Bob there too, and its revelation triggers some absolutely delightful passages, many of which last a considerable number of perfectly-judged chapters, which takes us back to the 1950s when solitary Bob meets his best friend Ethan and his wife Connie, and even to the end of World War Two when Bob runs away from his curiously emotionally uninvolved single mother for an adventure which is punctuated by gorgeously offbeat characters and dialogue that is as funny as it is richly oddball.

Far from detracting from the present day story of Bob coming slowly alive after a lifetime battening down the hatches – the key here is not that Bob is deeply unhappy and in need of redemption but that his life could be more and he only realises this when events conspire to show him what that might look and feel like – these sections bring Bob and his current day contented quagmire of a life alive and help us to really understand why he is how he is and why that maybe needs to change.

(courtesy Harper Collins)

What really marks The Librarianist as something truly special is the way in which deWitt fills the pages with perfectly balanced humour and a real insightful sense of what it is like to be an outcast from the mainstream.

The back blurb of the novel assures that The Librarianist contains the author’s “skewed humour and compassion for the outcast”, and that becomes rewardingly evident on every vivaciously worded page, with even the darker sections of the novel possessing real empathy laced with a comedic slant.

It’s this rich mix of the contrariness of the human condition, where the happy and the sad, the dark and the light, the serious and the hilarious all somehow coexist in a weird existential soup that somehow works, that makes this novel such an absolute joy to read.

If you’re the kind of person who takes a book to heart and embraces the world it creates and the characters who inhabit it with fervent abandon, then you will in your element in The Librarianist which delivers so much warmth and life and soul-reviving humour that even when terrible things are uncovered or discussed, there’s still overall sense that somehow it will be all right.

You have no guarantee of this, of course because there is warm inclusiveness and rich humanity at play, there’s also a grinding sense of the harshness of life and that often all we can do, like Bob, is hang on and make the best of things.

Maria understood that part of aging, at least for many of us, was to see how misshapen and imperfect our stories had to be. The passage of time bends us, it folds us up, and eventually, it tucks us right int the ground.

One of the most rewarding parts of the novel is that Bob somehow finds his people, even in the eighth decade of his life.

He might have taken far longer than most people to find his place, but find it he does, and because deWitt has so artfully gifted with so much of Bob’s past, we can understand all the more why this is such a special thing for him, and why after a lifetime of tamping down expectations, he’s happy to lift his guard and unreservedly dive into a rich of personality and living that previously evaded him.

Again, Bob is not an unhappy protagonist desperately crying for love and life and he likely could have gone to his grave perfectly content with his not-terrible lot, but the true pleasure of The Librarianist is that reminds Bob, and by extension, that it’s never too late to reinvent you, your life and all the things that matter to you and that in doing so, you might find something rare and precious you never even knew you needed.

The Librarianist is one of those reads you will fly through simply because it feels like a hug with grit and raw humanity, rich with the wisdom of living, of knowing we can be happy but that we could be happier still and that the final part of our life doesn’t have to be the end of it, and that maybe, just maybe, it could be when all the living really starts to happen.

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