When I read the promotions for this book, I was so excited. A book about a book lover cum antiquarian book dealer, Shakespeare, forgery, England, history… What was not to love? Certainly, The Bookman‘s Tale lives up to a great deal of my expectations. It tells the tale of grieving widower, Peter Byerly, who relocates from North America to England after the death of his beloved wife, Amanda. Living in the cottage they’d bought and were renovating is bitter-sweet for Peter and he becomes a bit of a recluse, that is until one day he discovers a picture that resembles his wife in the pages of an old book in a bookstore and sets out to learn the identity of this woman. What he doesn’t expect is that unravelling the mystery of the beautiful Victorian woman and the previous owners of the book in which the picture was hidden, thrusts him into danger. There are those who have interests to protect, interests that are closely tied to the books and the image Peter loves.
Segueing between contemporary times, Peter’s immediate past and romancing of Amanda as well as how he comes to learn book restoration and the steps involved (really interesting), the novel also travels back to the streets of Southwark in Shakespeare’s times where we encounter many a famous name and their various idiosyncrasies. We also trace a folio belonging to the Bard and follow the sometimes ignominious steps of its owners throughout history. But it’s when past and present collide that threat erupts and Peter learns that being a bibliophile can cost both your fortune and your life.
I enjoyed this book very much. The prose is lovely, dancing from the page and evoking strong emotions. Characters are nicely constructed as well though there were times that Peter wasn’t the only one wondering what Amanda saw in him – he lacks the charisma of the usual protagonist, even a bookish one, and part of me felt that his portrayal – the stereotype nerd was lacking. I felt he could be so much more without sacrificing veracity. The book also has an element of the supernatural/fantasy, adding a haunting quality to some of the scenes that is nicely done and gives them a particular frisson.
The book also engages with the ongoing (and spurious) debate about whether or not Shakespeare wrote his works or whether they were simply attributed to him. I call it spurious because, while it is fascinating, the fact we are blessed with ‘his’ legacy makes the argument moot. Lovett lays the debate to rest and I like his fanciful conclusions very much.
If you can suspend your disbelief, enjoy stepping back in history and love stories about books and writers as much as reading, then this is a terrific choice.