Spoiler alert: Just like a novel, you have to read this review through to the end to appreciate it.
Nobody who loves books, reading and bookshops could pass by The Last Bookshop without at least a lingering look.
The cover is an enticing photograph of a REAL bookshop, Bill Campbell Books, in Fremantle.
The shop glows with warmth and jewel-like colours, the generous open front doors are approached across a bright welcoming Persian-style rug. And you can’t help but squint at the thousands of books inside, to see which ones you recognise.
“Pick me up, take me home and read me” it murmurs.
And just like walking into such a beautiful bookshop, I started this novel by Perth writer Emma Young with high expectations. The title held such promise: those three words packed with emotion, intrigue and the hope of the visit (read) finishing with a smile on my face.
It started comfortably, like an initial browsing of the shelves.
But I couldn’t seem to find the book I wanted to take home. Do I want another by this author? Will I like this one? Is this expensive edition worth stretching my budget? Where are the books that leap out off the shelves and into my arms?
I start to feel disappointed with my foray into the shop…just as I started to feel a bit dispirited by the words I was reading.
(Names are left out so as not to spoil the plot)
“… laughed as the waiter approached, cleared their plates and proffered the dessert menu.
‘No thanks,’ said …, who felt very full, mostly of wine, but … took one.
‘There’s never any harm I looking,’ he said, with a rather roguish smile, and scanned it. Mouse? Dark chocolate tart? Or a dessert wine?’
‘No, really, I couldn’t. You have something, though,’ she said, not wanting to suggest she was in a hurry. ‘If you want.’
‘No, I’m full too,’ said … They sat for a moment, savouring the last of the wine, then …called for the bill and paid, despite her protestations.”
A prosaic little snippet of dialogue, but one that almost made me abandon the book.
(But excellent use of my favourite grammatical mark, the comma! Well done, Emma!)
But something made me keep reading.
Just as I would have lingered in the bookshop longer, willing myself to find something I loved.
And I’m glad I did.
It was a quick easy read, all done in a couple of days. I know a book has something going for it, if I look forward to returning to it each time, as I found myself doing with The Last Bookshop.
And every time I picked it up, there was the deep pleasure of that gorgeous cover.
I found cleverly-written hints of conflict, problems, joy. Just when I thought I knew how a scenario would turn out … it wouldn’t.
Then, a hundred pages after the desultory dinner dialogue, Emma Young wrote the words that made my heart (and every book-lover’s and book-seller’s) sing:
“People always seemed to exist in blissful ignorance of their unbelievable good fortune in being able to purchase an original work of art, that had taken anywhere from a year to ten years to write, guaranteed to provide many hours of entertainment and education and insight, for as little as ten or twenty dollars. What painting could you ever buy for that kind of money?” (This is Cait the bookseller musing.)
“A book lasted… days or week or months, and then you could keep it and lend it to anyone you like, even resell it. Yet people seemed to still think books expensive. By contrast, they were happy to pay well above twenty dollars for a manicure that lasted two days then got ruined.”
Yes. From then on, I began to appreciate this work of art all the more. I loved the tingle of familiarity I get from stories set in Perth., or any place I know well. I enjoyed the sometimes smug feeling of being familiar with a book Cait was recommending.
I wanted to know what was going to happen. I was engaged.
The ending had just the right amount of ambiguity for me. I’m not keen on books that leave my mouth gaping wide in horror at the final outcome, nor a story that is too neatly sewn up with a bright button stitched on top to seal it.
I finished it with a smile on my face.
So, yes, you CAN judge a book by its cover.
The Last Bookshop by Emma Young, published by Fremantle Press, has been shortlisted for the Fogarty Literary Award. RRP $32.99 (less than a restaurant meal and guaranteed to last a lot longer).