The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted by Robert Hillman
PUBLISHED BY TEXT PUBLISHING
REVIEW BY ANITA LAURIDSEN
Set in Hometown, a small rural Victorian town circa 1960s, The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted is a quiet book with lots of spirit.
I couldn’t help but fall a little in love with Tom Hope, the somewhat hapless protagonist. Socially awkward and unlucky in love, Tom, an accidental sheep farmer, is a good man. Decent and kind, perhaps he is too easily taken advantage of as witnessed by his first marriage to Trudy, who abandons him when she finds spiritual salvation in a spurious Jesus cult. Not only does she leave her husband, but she also takes Peter, her son by another man, a child Tom has come to love as his own.
With a failed marriage behind him and the sudden departure of Peter, Tom is left bereft and broken hearted. Cue the entrance of the feisty and quixotic Hannah Babel, a Hungarian Jewess and Holocaust survivor. Haunted by personal loss and tragedy, she envisions redemption in books and literature. Enlisting Tom to help her fit out her ‘Bookshop of the Broken Hearted’, a connection is quickly established between the unlikely pair. Not age, experience and cultural difference, nor the prejudices and disapproval of the townspeople, stand in the way of their burgeoning love for each other.
In the hands of a less able writer, this plot development could have seen the story degenerate into a syrupy cocktail of romantic tropes and clichés. However, Hillman is a deft craftsman and Tom and Hannah’s relationship becomes an effective vehicle for exploring complex themes of grief, memory and desire.
Tom and Hannah are realistically drawn characters and so very easy to love – Tom because of his seemingly endless compassion and generosity of spirit, and Hannah because of her idiosyncrasies, her quirkiness and her beautiful joie de vivre. Both of them are broken and damaged, however, and their stories of loss, heartbreak and healing are slowly revealed over the course of the novel.
Hillman successfully interweaves some big historic events into his narrative as well: the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the moon landing, for example. This never becomes clumsy, however, but rather a way of exploring the world the characters inhabit – a world that is expansive, exciting and full of possibilities, but sometimes tragic and cruel as well. The ways the outside world and the ripples of history touch and ultimately shape these characters’ lives and experiences is one of the novel’s enduring strengths.
This is a big-hearted and immersive read and highly recommended.
Find this novel in store at Planet Books. Ask the friendly staff for guidance too, and they’ll be more than happy to order you in a copy if it’s already sold out.