Suffering from WWII fiction fatigue, I approached Madeline Martin's novel with trepidation, fearing more of the same variations on wartime themes of love, loss, and horror. All of these facets are there, but the book's overarching theme is a sense of a community brought together by the enduring power of literature.
Having left her broken life in Norfolk, Grace Bennett, accompanied by her best friend Viv, arrives in a somewhat broken London - a city on the verge of war. With signs of the coming conflict everywhere, London is not the gem they expected.
They lodge with Grace's late-mother's widowed friend, Mrs. Weatherford and her gentle son, Colin. Mrs. Weatherford is a force to be reckoned with and soon inveigles Mr. Evans, the curmudgeonly owner of Primrose Hill, a dusty and cluttered bookshop, into employing Grace. When Grace sets to work cleaning and organizing the shop, Mr. Evans begins to mellow toward her. With little knowledge of books and literature, she gratefully accepts the advice and friendship of book-loving customer George Anderson. When George joins the RAF, his parting gift to Grace is his much-read copy of 'The Count of Monte Cristo,' which begins her journey of discovery of books and their power to provide an escape from the horrors of war.
As the Nazi aerial onslaught of London increases day and night, Grace finds solace and hope in stories such as 'South Riding,' an empowering tale, set after the Great War, about people who overcome whatever life throws at them. In the public air raid shelters and later in the bookshop, Grace reads stories aloud, helping to not only block out the sounds of bombs exploding, but bringing respite from listeners' own worries and sorrows.
'The Last Bookshop in London' is a timeless tale of hope and survival, and sends a much-needed message to us all during the current pandemic.
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