The Librarian by Salley Vickers

Review published on November 8, 2018.

In 1958 twenty-four-year-old Sylvia Blackwell takes up the post of Children’s Librarian in the run-down library of a small market town. She is passionate about improving this section of the library and about encouraging local children to find as much pleasure from reading books as she did when she was a child. When she falls in love with an older married man, not only does she risk losing her job, but the future of the children’s section of the library is put in jeopardy. However, it is her relationships with the man’s daughter and her neighbour’s young son which will have an ongoing, permanent effect on their lives.

I never thought I would find myself finding a book by Salley Vickers a disappointment! Having read and enjoyed all her previous novels, I had looked forward with so much anticipation to her latest story but had this been my first experience of her story-telling, I’m not sure I would have felt encouraged to read any of her earlier work. For me, one of the hallmarks of her writing has always been her creative use of her psychotherapy training, not only in her explorations of the complexities of her characters’ personalities but also in the themes she develops. However, in this novel I found the writing style naïve and rather one-dimensional, to the extent that I wondered at which age group the story was targeted. I can imagine that most of its content would appeal to very young teenagers, although certain explicit sexual descriptions would be inappropriate for this age group.

Throughout the story there are repetitive reflections on several contemporary social iniquities, particularly the divisive nature of the 11+ exam, class divisions and women’s lack of power. All were important in 1950s Britain and were evocatively described, but I found the author’s approach too repetitive, over-determined and preachy, to the extent that I frequently felt like shouting “Enough – I’ve got the message!” From someone who usually makes every word count in her writing, this came as a huge surprise.

I thought that the various children were convincingly portrayed but found that most of the adult characterisations, although recognisable, bordered on being stereotypical caricatures. Again, this came as a shock because another hallmark of this author’s previous books has been her convincing, nuanced depictions of all her characters.

Approximately the final ten percent of the story is devoted to a “sixty years on” update on the lives of some of the characters but I found this too forced and overly sentimental. I would much preferred to have been left to reflect for myself on their futures. However, I do recognise that for anyone who prefers loose ends to be neatly tied up, this section of the book will probably hold more appeal.

From all that I have written so far it would be easy to assume that I didn’t get any enjoyment from reading this story so, as that isn’t true, I will end this review by sharing the aspects I did enjoy! As someone whose highlight of the week as a child was going to the library to take out as many books as I was allowed (without being restricted to the “age-appropriate” choices available in the classroom!), Salley’s portrayal of the importance of an understanding and enthusiastic librarian brought back many happy memories. I can still recall how exciting it felt to be offered so many opportunities to explore different worlds, and to lose myself in the magical world of reading – a pleasure which continues to this day! This sharing of a passion for reading cannot be over-estimated and is just one reason why we should all be doing everything we can to ensure that libraries aren’t closed!

I loved being reminded of so many of the books that held such importance for me as a child. Inevitably, there were some of her choices which I can recall disliking, as well as favourites of mine which she didn’t include, but what a lively discussion theme this would be for reading groups! I also appreciated how well she captured the era in which the story was set and thought that she achieved a realistic balance between reflecting a freer, more innocent time for children with some of the restrictions of choice, choices so often determined by a more rigid social-class divide.

Finally, no review of this book would be complete without some reference to how exquisitely beautiful the hardback copy is. With its pale-green cloth-effect cover and its flowery end papers, it’s a joy to hold, something which always adds a pleasurable dimension to my reading experience.

Linda Hepworth 3/4

The Librarian by Salley Vickers
Viking 9780241321737 hbk Apr 2018

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