SWB reviews a Damn Fine Book

Way back at the start of Lockdown a couple of friends asked if I could do book reviews. So, I’m getting to it, finally now, just as restrictions are being lifted. But hey, isn’t it almost summer and yes, we’re less likely to be on a beach on the Costa del Sunshine, but there will hopefully be time to read a book or two anyway, even we are freezing our backsides off in an Air B&B in the back end of Mayo for want of nowhere else being open. (And yes, I am aware that it’s been roasting, but perpetual pessimist that I am, I’ll be amazed if it lasts all summer.)

My first recommendation is The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted by Robert Hillman, which I took with me on my girlie weekend to Barcelona. Much as I love my friends, I was so captivated by the story that I carted my sun-lounger to a shady corner of the roof terrace so I could lose myself in the narrative. I didn’t budge for two hours, not even for a glass of cava, so I’m telling you, this is some read. And when I finished it I wanted more- so much so that the next day I started it again from the beginning. I’ve never done that before.

And, I kid you not, I chose it based on its cover. Standing there I was, in ‘Books Paper Scissors’ and I said, ‘What’s that you have there now Paul?’ because it looked so fun and whimsical with its bold red jacket with a yellow canary perched upon a shelf. It all got a bit meta- me in an independent bookstore looking at a book about a small bookstore. However, the obvious difference is that in this story the proprietor is a Hungarian Jewish émigré who has survived Auschwitz and come to live in the backwater of Hometown in Australia. Here she meets Tom, a divorcee sheep farmer, and the two form an unlikely couple.

Tom is a pragmatist, and like the rest of the straight-talking townspeople, he finds Hannah’s bohemian eccentricities mystifying, but it is this clash of culture, often expressed through snippets of dialogue which make the story so engaging.

Hillman is the master of ‘show don’t tell’. A powerful example of this is when he describes how Hannah and the clutch of survivors of the ‘slave army’, carefully ration any food they manage to find as they journey through a freezing Poland: ‘A bag of ten hard sweets was divided up, two minutes per sweet by strict count in the mouth of each woman.’

In another vignette Hannah offers to help Tom dig a channel for the flood water to drain away after a Biblical downpour. He is amazed at her ability to dig, her steady handling of the sodden earth belying her slight stature. He wonders if this was something she learnt in Auschwitz, but hardly dares ask.

The novel skips seamlessly between past and present, as Hillman uses flashbacks to tell Hannah’s story set against her current life in Hometown with Tom. This is no ordinary love story- it is a testimony to the human psyche’s ability to not only endure, but to flourish. Although a short novel, Hillman manages to create a vivid depiction of small-town Australia and post-war life in Budapest with a startling clarity. And Tom. Dear God. Everyone needs a Tom in their life. As the novel unfolds, Hillman builds upon his character with tiny details, so that by the end of it, you mourn that he doesn’t belong in your close circle. The world needs more Toms, and more books like this one.

I read it a third time, over Lockdown. Something about the language soothes and settles me.  We could probably all be doing with a bit of that right now.



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