Laurence Cossé, A Novel Bookstore (2009/10)
A Novel Bookstore is the ninth novel by French writer Laurence Cossé (the translaltion is by Alison Anderson); one of the launch titles for the UK imprint of Europa Editions; and a celebration of literature. Ivan Georg is a bookseller who has reached his forties mostly drifting through life; but that all changes when he meets Francesca Aldo-Valbelli, a fellow-lover of literature, with the wealth to turn a vision into reality – and the particular vision which the pair has is a bookstore which will stock only good novels, as selected by a secret committee of writers. The Good Novel bookstore duly opens inParis, and is a great success; but there are those who seek to discredit this well-intentioned enterprise – even to the point of physically attacking its committee members.
Though Cossé’s novel is framed as a mystery, its structure (with a lengthy detour in the middle detailing the history of The Good Novel) – and, indeed, the very resolution of the mystery – suggests that this element is not the main point of A Novel Bookstore; rather, it’s about the value of literature itself. There are direct statements of what good novels can do – literature ‘prepares you for life’ (p. 150), it ‘bring[s] like-minded people together and get[s] them talking’ (p. 81) – but we also see how literature has enriched the lives of the characters who write and read it in the book.
There are aspects of A Novel Bookstore which seem less disruptive here than I’d usually find them in a novel – such as the passages where Ivan and Francesca discuss books, passages which are detailed but don’t drag – and I’m not sure whether I am just cutting the book more slack because I share its enthusiasm for literature, and it imagines a place where I’d love to shop. Well, if that’s the case, so be it; for today, the celebration is enough.
Sara Levine, Treasure Island!!! (2012)
Sara Levine’s debut novel (another Europa UK launch title) also revolves around the transforming power of literature, though here it’s one work in particular, and the result is perhaps not as positive. Levine’s (unnamed) narrator is a twenty-something graduate with a penchant for the easy (one might say lazy) option, until reading Treasure Island inspires her to be more like Jim Hawkins, and be bold and adventurous in her life. So she takes money from the Pet Library where she works in order to buy a parrot (which does not go down well with her boss), and goes on from there.
The crux of Treasure Island!!! for me is the narrator’s lack of self-awareness: her inability (or unwillingness) to acknowledge the negative effects her actions have on others; to recognise that the changes she’s making in her life are not as daring as she thinks; to countenance that other people might have aspirations and lives as complex and important as her own. The protagonist’s narrative voice veers between wry and snarky, which adds to the portrayal of someone who is unsympathetic, but not entirely alienating. One’s reaction to her is held in tension to the very end, where there’s a suggestion that the narrator may finally be finding her way, despite everything.
Simon Kurt Unsworth, Rough Music (2012)
Now a new chapbook from Spectral Press, this time by the ever-reliable Simon Unsworth. It’s the tale of a man named Cornish, who’s been hiding an affair from his wife Andrea, and is now having to cope with a bunch of masked figures making a racket and acting out some strange performance beneath his bedroom window every night – though nobody else seems to notice them. From the start, Cornish is not exactly a sympathetic character; but Unsworth gradually and effectively reveals just how cold and calculating the protagonist is, which makes his inevitable comeuppance all the more satisfying. The ‘rough music’ outside also works well, as it shifts back and forth between having a metaphorical function and driving forward changes in the story. All in all, nicely done.