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Wednesday, 01 March 2017 16:55

In rural Scotland, lessons on the power of books

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Readers of this column know I am a sucker for books about books. Novels like The Little Paris Bookshop, collections of reviews by such notables as Michael Dirda and Nick Hornsby, books touting other books like Book Lust, memoirs like The Reading Promise: My Father And The Books We Shared, all reach out from the shelves of bookstores or libraries, grab me by the shirt collar, and demand to be taken home, read, and reviewed.

Well, here we go again.

Jenny Colgan’s novel The Bookshop on the Corner (William Morrow, 2016, 333 pages, $25.99) offers readers the charming tale of Nina Redmond, a young woman in Birmingham, England, who loses her post as a librarian because of job cuts. The government is interested in libraries becoming more high-tech centers than repositories for books, and the library where Nina works begins discarding boxes and boxes of books during her last weeks of employment. Nina collects these books, stores them at her apartment much to the annoyance of her friend and roommate, and finally hits on the idea of buying a van and operating a bookshop on wheels. 

In looking for the appropriate van — which Americans would more likely call a bus — Nina heads for Scotland and the Highlands, a place of small villages, wide open spaces, and broad skies. Here she not only secures the van she was after — this purchase requires a great deal of dickering — but in a series of misadventures she spends far more time than planned in Kirrinfief, home of the van and soon to be Nina’s home as well.

As she slowly falls in love with Kirrinfief and the beautiful surrounding countryside, Nina discovers her neighbors and the people living in the surrounding villages are book-starved. Local libraries have closed, and local bookshops have gone out of business. With the help of her former roommate, Surrinder, Nina paints and decorates the van, adds shelves and stock, and begins to make a go of her small business, traveling to farmers’ markets, festivals, and town squares to sell her literary wares, restocking her shelves from the cast-off volumes of other libraries closing their doors or consolidating their books.

In the meantime, Nina, whose recent dating history has been as empty as the Highland Hills, meets two men who attract her, each in his own way. Marek, a foreigner learning the skills of railroading, treats Nina chivalrously and is clearly in love with her, though he has secrets from his past he keeps from her. Lennox, the bluff, hard-nosed sheep man and farmer from whom Nina rents her cottage, often interacts with her rudely and bluntly, in part because of the secrets from his past as well.

In addition to these people, Colgan gives us a score or more of minor characters who add much to The Bookshop on the Corner and its portrayal of contemporary life in the Highlands. Colgan lives in England and in Scotland, and clearly has a heart for the Scots. Her descriptions of the village tavern, its sense of community, its various rituals and dances all help to bring the story alive.

The Bookshop on the Corner possesses other virtues as well. Colgan, for one, manages to blend a good amount of gentle humor into her story. When Nina takes the van for her first drive, the men leave the pub to watch this “wee lassie” drive the enormous van. After she has purchased the van and meets with Lennox to rent the cottage, this scene ensues:

“Lennox squinted out through the door suddenly and raised his hand to his forehead.

‘Is that your van rolling down the hill?’

‘What?’ shouted Nina. ‘No, I left the hand brake on. I did! I’m sure I definitely did.’

‘It’d better not run over any of my bloody chickens.’”

His casual reaction to the runaway van not only tells us about Lennox, but is also just plain funny. Lennox, by the way, saves the van for Nina, and his “bloody chickens” are left undamaged.

The Bookshop on the Corner also reminds us of the power of books and story, even in our age of digital frenzy. Time after time, Nina connects readers with books to help solve their problems. Ainslee, a girl from an impoverished home and a sick mother, finds solace in the books Nina suggests, while her brother Ben, accustomed to skipping school and finding trouble, becomes a reader and realizes the importance of stories. Lesley, the cold-hearted woman from the local grocer’s who resists all of Nina’s literary suggestions finally takes her up on a book about an abandoned woman and connects so deeply with the story that she returns to the shop in tears wanting to read similar books.

At the end of The Bookshop on the Corner Jenny Colgan includes a section called “Meet Jenny Colgan” and another with excerpts from her other novels: Christmas at the Cupcake Café, Little Beach Street Bakery, and Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery. The novels all appear as well-written and engaging as The Bookshop on the Corner, and in “Meet Jenny Colgan,” which she describes as “entirely solipsistic,” is a long list titled “Stuff I Like.” Ranging from Granny Smiths and Margaritas to The Far Side and Converse low-tops, the list gives us an amusing insight into Colgan and her world.

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