Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2020
This thrilling fantasy romp by the prolific Garth Nix draws on his experiences in various aspects of the book trade, his travels in England and particularly his 1983 sojourn there, but it also pays homage to his childhood reading of authors like Alan Garner and Susan Cooper.
It has the same mystic, mythic quality as the works of these English writers, and is steeped in the mystery of a natural world where stones and trees have animate qualities and immense powers.
Standing in an English wood or by some remote storm weathered crags, one can easily feel this and so for the reader to be transported to just such an old world is quite a comfortable journey.
The tradition of the genre is also very much about the crossing of old and new worlds, of the eternal fight between good and evil and the work of both contemporary human beings and their real or mythic ancestors in keeping the universal balance and virtue.
Enter the booksellers of London, delightfully for booklovers, the guardians of the lore and the keepers of all that is right. The rather steam-punkish troubled 18 year old Susan (our heroine) travels to London in search of information about her father from whom she has been estranged since birth.
Her mother is oddly unable to speak about him – or she won’t. Immediately Susan is embroiled in old magic and teams up with Merlin, a young left-handed bookseller in what becomes a rip-snorting boys’ own style adventure, her quest to find her father or at least to find who he was/is.
With a breath-takingly racy pace, the author takes us through a myriad of vicious concerted attacks on Susan and her new pals as her connection with all of the bookselling family is cemented and her task pursued. Real (new) world cops and bad guys are part of this mix but so too is a variety of wild, strange beings from the other side.
There is plenty of classic shoot-out and epic struggle violence here, told however with a somewhat sardonic tone. In fact, there is a great deal of laugh aloud humour in this book, especially the author’s throw away jibes about booksellers and bookshops. Only someone who loves both could pull this off, I suspect.
The Left-Handed Booksellers of London is a love song of sorts to London itself and readers will know so many of the places Garth Nix takes us to. It is also a fabulous, running reading list, as the author cunningly inserts many of his favourite reads into the bookstore displays.
The book is complex, plot-driven but not to the exclusion of character development. It is a pleasure to watch the unfolding relationships between Susan and her companions and to see her own coming of age as she grapples with her past, her family and her own possible status as not quite ‘normal’.
It’s essential to read this book in long sessions – we really want each disaster resolved before we put it down, but also the speed and multiplicity of events is such that we are constantly on the move, driven forward to each small climax and then the denouement.
I loved it.
Thank you to Allen and Unwin for the review copy and for facilitating my conversation with Garth Nix, with whom I share so many literary favourites.