The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson – Dreams of an alternative life?

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The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson

This is a book with a lot going for it. In a way a historical novel, set in the 1960s, it puts two sets of possible lives together in a subtle but thoroughly believable way.  The bookselling element is important because of the way books themselves become solid objects of certainty in an uncertain life. The two possible lives in this book both have their tragedies, but both have their pleasures and deep love. This is a novel of normal life, with all its small pleasures and trials, beautifully described in a most engaging way by Swanson. She is so deep in the period that the small things contribute to a wide picture which is most convincing. I was pleased to receive a copy of this unusual book from the publishers.

Kitty Miller is a young woman living in Denver during the politically exciting year of 1963. She lives alone apart from a cat called Aslan, has a loving relationship with her parents, and runs a small bookshop with her greatest friend, Frieda. The shop is not doing well financially as it has little passing trade, Kitty’s parents have been on an extended holiday and she is missing them, and despite her close friendship with Frieda she is lonely. It is at this point she has a dream, of such breath taking reality that she feels hopelessly confused. In her dream she wakes in a bed with Lars, who turns out to be her husband, with children who she seems to know how to deal with instinctively. When she wakes she is completely confused by the real nature of her dream. She remembers her attempts with a personal advertisement a few years previously when she had a phone conversation with a man called Lars, and concludes that memory had called up the dream. She asserts reality in her life, using the books around her as anchors, as the dreams continue and she discovers more about the subtly different world she enters in her when sleeps.

This cleverly written book pulls the reader in and is genuinely gripping. The characters, from Kitty/Katharyn through to each child, are well drawn. The plot keeps the reader involved and guessing throughout the novel, and each life has real depth. The small details of life, the emotions of the characters for each other, and the texture of the slightly alternative worlds which Swanson creates are immensely attractive. The whole historical setting with the Cuba crisis which, while the reader knows the end of, the characters fear, feels very real and intensely involving. Altogether this is a most enjoyable book, with some real truths about women’s lives and what shapes them, and the eternal question of what if life had turned out differently based on the events of a moment.

There has been a bit of a gap since my previous post, but the good news is that I have got my essay in, and my activity cards delivered. So a little gap before the new term starts with new modules to fight with, and no doubt much to read. Just one talk, on Vera Brittain and the First World War to research, write and deliver in the first week of October…