Charlie Lovett’s novel The Bookman’s Tale is fiction that will appeal greatly to book lovers. The engaging plotline is a kind of ghostly love story enriched not only by the painful neuroses of its protagonist Peter Byerly, a man who is deeply in mourning over his wife Amanda’s death some nine months earlier. Peter is an antiquarian bookseller who, in an attempt to begin ‘moving on’ with his life, enters a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye in Wales, picks up one a familiar title on forgery, and finds a watercolour pressed between its pages. What shocks him is that the image, which is clearly from the Victorian era, is of his wife Amanda. This sets Peter on an obsessive search to find out more about the image and its painter, only known from his initials “B.B.”
As a character, Peter is entirely likeable, as is Amanda, who we begin to know in flashbacks as the story moves backwards and forwards in time and space. Of course, this is a novel about love and loss, but perhaps more than that, the novel pivots around Peter’s deep love of books, developed through his job as an antiquarian bookseller and book restorer. It is this love that turns the novel into a mystery, not only about Amanda’s picture, but about one of the most enduring and interesting of literary mysteries of all time: whether Shakespeare was truly the author of those works ascribed to him. Peter gets hold of “the holy grail”–a copy of Pandosto, a book written by Robert Greene which was said to be the inspiration for The Winter’s Tale, and which, in Lovett’s novel, has notes written in it by Shakespeare himself. This is the book that could establish Shakespeare’s authorship once and for all if it’s authentic, and the search for authenticity sets Peter on a journey that combines danger, creativity, emotional healing, and above all else, scholarship.
The hint of the supernatural that blows through the pages is handled very deftly, as is the structure that moves between the 19th century setting of Shakespeare’s time, between Peter’s first meeting with Amanda, and his “present” which is 1995. Throughout the story we meet a number of famous historical characters, including the great man himself, as well as Christopher Marlowe and WH Smith, all of whom are colourfully drawn. There are all sorts of nice parallels between the time frames, particularly between the three different booksellers, whose behavior ultimately influences and develops the plot. Lovett’s obvious love of books and deep understanding of the world of antiquarian bookselling and restoration is something that not only enriches Peter’s character but provides a point of strong interest for anyone interested in how books are constructed and repaired:
“The first task was to remove what was left of the original cover. Peter clamped the text block of the book in the job backer, the same upright vice he had first seen Hank leaning over a year earlier. Using a lifting knife, Peter sliced away the remnants of the spine and rear cover. He placed a few dollops of gloppy paste on the spine and allowed the moisture to loosen the glue on the backs of the pages. Within thirty minutes the glue was soft, and Peter peeled it away with his lifting knife. Taking the now disbound book from the job backer, Peter began the process of pulling the text—separating the signatures form one another and from the thread that had bound them together.” (110)
The Bookman’s Tale is rooted in literary scholarship, full of fun gossip and historical play that makes the short chapters read very quickly and easily. As an American who once lived in Oxford, I particularly enjoyed the way in which some aspects of Peter’s ‘modern time’ character is defined by his being an ex-patriot and by his reverence for the English countryside amongst which this book is set. Peter’s sincerity as he tries to do the right thing, even in throes of his grief, or the hunger of his obsessions, drives the story forward and provides an excellent contrast to the less honest machinations of those who surround him, particularly those who have played a part in the mystery of the Pandosto. Peter’s healing develops naturally through the chapters, and ultimately makes The Bookman’s Tale an immensely satisfying and pleasurable read that combines a range of genres and above all else, celebrates the beauty and wonder of the literary word.