Like Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, reviewed yesterday, The Bookman’s Tale is new-new. In fact, it’s still in the oven until June, but here’s a sneak peek. Author Charlie Lovett tells the tale of Peter Byerly, a young bookseller, whose life came to a virtual halt at the death of his beloved wife. Now, a year later, he tries to follow his doctor’s advice for recovery by visiting a bookshop in Wales to look for rare books. Instead of a book, he finds a watercolor of a woman exactly like his wife, but painted a hundred years earlier. Thus begins what I term a book detective story as Byerly traces the painting which then leads him to the Holy Grail of literary puzzles: proof that Shakespeare did—or didn’t—write his own plays.
Lovett, a bookman himself, develops this mystery by juxtaposing three sets of time periods. The most recent, 1995, Peter Byerly’s discovery of a document that may answer the great puzzle, but which puts his life in danger. Starting in 1983 are Peter’s years at a North Carolina university and his fateful meeting with Amanda Middleton, who becomes his wife. Since the author reveals early on that she dies, I’m not giving anything away here. In fact, knowing of her eventual death adds poignancy of their relationship and deeper understanding of Peter’s character. And last, there is the story strand beginning in 1592 in Southwark, England. Here are such real-life characters as Christopher Marlowe, Robert Cotton, and “the upstart crow” himself. This strand continues up to the time of the mysterious watercolor.
Pluses: The Bookman’s Tale is what’s called “high concept,” meaning a readable plot-based/ fast paced book (I read this book in a day and a half), usually a “what if” type story. I especially liked the sections on art and book forgery. Here, Lovett has done an excellent job of research. He weaves his fictional tale with threads of fact so that you are left wondering how much of his story is actually true. For example, he mentions the infamous forger of Morman documents, Mark Hofmann, whose creation of a fake poem by Emily Dickinson eventually led to his downfall. See The Poet and the Murderer by Simon Worrall (highly recommended).
If you liked Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon or Possession by A. S. Byatt (highly recommended), you might like this novel. Possession, a Booker Prize winner, is much more literary than Bookman, but is similar in its use of juxtaposed time periods and hunt for a literary prize.
Have you read any new-new books that you would recommend? If so, tell us something about them.