To indulge my inner British ginger self, I am bloody beaming after reading Madeline Martin’s 2021 novel, The Last Bookshop in London. Goodness, it was such a delightful, lovely, hopeful book that is certainly one of the most optimistic, feel-good books I can recall reading in quite some time. And that is a seemingly weird thing to say about a historical fiction book set in WWII, and particularly set during the awful Blitz of London. But, that’s kind of the point of the book? That war is unpredictable, that the only thing predictable thing about war is that it is hell, and yet, life goes on. The human spirit finds a way. We dance amid the bombs. We read through the air raid sirens. We emerge from the ashes. To rebuild. To continue on.
Such is the story of Grace, Viv, Mrs. Weatherford, Mr. Evans, and the cast of characters around them during the Blitz. Grace is one of my new favorite lead characters in a book. She’s endlessly, endearingly earnest, dare I pun, graceful, and above all us, compassionate. She does not let bitterness overtake her, nor cynicism of war’s hell engulf her, and she never dares to stoop below her station. The best part? She’s humble, imbued with a deeply abiding humility that she is decidedly not brave — she thinks those volunteering to fight or conscripted are brave; those sending their children off to the countryside to avoid bombing are brave; and those volunteers fighting the fires after the bombings are brave — and her part is decidedly so small in the grand scheme of London’s stand against Hitler’s onslaught.
And yet. She comes to find that she is more brave, more heroic, and more important to the fight against Hitler than she thought. Sure, she didn’t take up a gun against Hitler, or even like her friend, Viv, anti-aircraft guns and radar, or like her budding lover, George Anderson, the Royal Air Force, but she’s heroic in two important ways: First, by volunteering to be an Air Raid Precautions warden, who at first started out seemingly being a busybody telling people to turn out their lights (for good reason, mind you, to not present an easy target to German bombers), to becoming somebody who helps fight fires, check for survivors after bombings, and everything else in between; and secondly, by giving the small world around Primrose Hill bookshop the love, and the vital distraction, of reading.
Something I’ve been fascinated by lately, and I mentioned this I believe in my review of Gulag, is that despite the circumstances threatening the external human condition, humans will always find a way to not merely survive, but to thrive through art, expression, and with art through mediums like books. Because what is all this for — the fighting to repel Hitler — if not only for the chance to survive, but to thrive in a world full of culture and happiness and dancing? After all, Mr. Evans, the Primrose Hill bookshop owner, kept a safe of books saved from Hitler’s book burnings. That is vital. The fight with Hitler wasn’t just about a bid to survive, although of course it was that, too, but a bid for the freedom of men, women and children everywhere from a dictator’s whims and totalitarianism. To read in a world threatened by such men is an act of rebellion, and is a revolutionary act, however small it may seem in the grand scheme of a global war. We need the Graces of the world during such moments in human history.
Grace gets put through the wringer in this book, having to overcome Mr. Evans’ curmudgeonly status (Grace reminds him of his daughter, Alice, who was lost to a car accident); Mr. Stokes, her fellow warden, who starts out so callous and heartless; the death of Colin, Mrs. Weatherford’s son who prior to war was rescuing animals (I repeat, war is hell, and takes of us our young); the death later of Mr. Evans due to a seeming heart attack; and perhaps most interestingly to me, the way in which war messes with the psyche. You see, at first, when Grace and Viv arrived to London, it was with the promise of London, the shining, vivacious city promising a life of grandeur that their countryside upbringing could not possibly provide, and instead, they came to a city on the brink of war. Then, once war was declared on Germany by Neville Chamberlain, it would be another eight or nine months before anything actually happened; that period is called the “bore war” or the “phoney war.” Finally, once the Blitz was underway, it was a shock to Grace’s system. The air raid sirens. The drone of the German planes. And the bombs, and the fires, and the ashes, and the destruction. But then, even under the Blitz, life kept going, life became acclimated, and the brain began to just sort of … operate with that hell as white noise. It is utterly fascinating to me how much humans can endure, and make what is unfathomable normal. Because what other choice is there?
Perhaps the best image for showing just how surreal the new normal became in London in the run-up to the war, and during the Phoney War period, was that Grace, Viv, and others carried around gas masks, and there were even specialty-made purses to carry the gas masks. Fortunately, unlike WWI, poison gas didn’t end up being as much of a factor in WWII, I don’t believe.
But by being put through the wringer as Grace is by the dictates by the British government, and society, under siege in London, by the characters around her, and by the war itself, Grace grew in an extraordinary fashion from the beginning of the book to the end of the book. Even aside from the fact that she went into the Primrose Hill bookshop not being much of a reader to ending the novel by owning the shop, giving daily readings, and becoming a voracious reader, Grace also discovered her own mettle, like that of Jane in Jane Eyre. That she is capable of more than she thought, and that her depths are deeper than she suspected.
Did I mention how much I loved Grace’s character? And the reason I also find the book so darn endearing and optimistic is because the other characters, like Mr. Evans, Mrs. Weatherford (who has to rebound from Colin’s death), Mrs. Nesbitt (who is just so cruel to Grace early on), Mr. Stokes, and others, also have these growth arcs where they become better people through the strife wrought by the war. I appreciated that. Because I would think such out-of-the-norm strife would hopefully get people to reconsider, revaluate, and grow.
Out of this historical fiction book, I also learned three new things about WWII, too, by the way (and I’m sure more I’m forgetting more):
- I didn’t know about the aforementioned “bore war” period, and how strange such a time must have been.
- I didn’t know about the heartbreaking fact of the British people sending their children to the countryside far away from London in hopes of keeping them safe from the bombardment surely to come.
- I didn’t know about the blackouts, and that particularly, the blackouts became a time of increased lootings and such. It sounds dreadful.
Now, I want to read more books specifically about Britain’s role in WWII, and specifically about the people of London under the Blitz.
And, of course, I added half a dozen books to my “want to read” list on Goodreads that were books Grace was either reading herself, or reading to the community. Thank you, Madeline!
Seriously, go read this book if you want to feel better about humanity. I’m already an optimistic person, so this book was sort of hitting the notes of a song I was sure to enjoy, but I never mind hearing lovely music!