So, I know I pilfered the tag-line of this post from the novel itself, but I felt that there was no phrase more appropriate for this book. The Bookman’s Tale is a novel of obsession, although, not the type of obsession that the back cover would lead the reader to expect. Our protagonist, Peter Byerly, is obsessed with old books and his late wife Amanda. This much can be gleaned from the publisher’s summary. However, the deeper obsession here is an obsession with revenge and a rivalry between two neighboring families living on opposite sides of a river.
The novel opens with Peter Byerly as a patron in a bookstore in the literarily obsessed town of Hay-on-Wye, Whales. Having recently lost his beloved wife, Peter uproots his life from an upscale college town in North Carolina to a small town situated in rural England. Not only has Peter left his home behind, but also his friends, family, and career/passion. Peter is an antiquarian bookseller and book restorer. It is this passion he is hoping to reignite when he walks into the Welsh store. In the process of perusing some books on Shakespearian forgeries, Peter comes across a startling discovery; a watercolor painting of his wife Amanda, painted over 100 years before she was born. His quest to discover the origins of the painting enmeshes Peter in a centuries-old rivalry and leads him to what could possibly be the most important discovery in literary history.
At the start, the over-arching theme of this book was eerily reminiscent of that found in The Little Paris Bookshop. A bibliophilic man, who many would view as being in the prime of his life, has lost his great love and subsequently secludes himself from everything he’s ever known. He then embarks on an epic journey and rediscovers himself and his capacity to live and love in the process. Because of my love for the aforementioned novel, this, in and of itself, was enough to make me really enjoy this book. Add in some mystery, intrigue and murder, and this story is one to be absolutely devoured.
What makes this novel truly unique is that it is set in 3 completely different time periods: the present, the recent past, and the distant past. At first, I found this to be a deficit of the book. Especially with the series of events that took place in the distant past, I found it extraordinarily difficult to keep up with the myriad of characters that where introduced and who was doing what with and to whom. However, as the novel progressed, I found it easier to comprehend and developed a great appreciation for how it tied into the overall story.
There is no greater joy in my life than to be able to learn something from a novel I’m reading. There was a lot of material in this one. The author did a wonderful job of integrating genuine historical figures, places and documents into his work and weaving a story around them that even the most ardent fiction lover would enjoy. Even I, who admittedly do not particularly enjoy Shakespeare (gasp), found it fascinating to learn about him, his work, and the time period in which he lived. I also learned a great deal about the art of book binding and restoration (which it never occurred to me existed), and my literary fore-fathers; those who loved, collected, and truly revered the written word.
The one problem I had with this novel, if you can even really call it a problem, was how it was structured. I mentioned before that it was set in three different time periods, but how it played out structure-wise drove me a little bit crazy. We all love a good cliff-hanger, but, the author had a habit, WITH EVERY CHAPTER, to begin to reveal something completely life-altering, and then suddenly throw the story hundreds of years away from where you were just a page before. Being roughly 36 hours removed from it now, I’m able to look back and laugh. But, while I was reading this novel, there were countless times where I had to resist throwing it across the room in abject frustration.
All that being said, don’t go into reading this book expecting a love story. You will find some, but not enough of that here to quench that thirst. However, if you’re in the mood for a great historical fiction, murder mystery, or both, you will really love this book.