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FANTASTIC FICTION - Escapes to other places and other times

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Familiar genres of fiction such as historical, adventure, romance, and crime are being supplemented by new categories. This is presumably because there is no escape from the marketing drive towards ‘product development’, nor an end to the ceaseless human desire for novelty. Recent examples have been ‘chick lit’ to satisfy young female interest, and ‘misery literature’ to satisfy the morbid interest in broken lives, and so on.

A new kid on the block is “uplit”. So much of what we hear in our media-saturated world is demoralizing. Think terrorist attacks, stabbings, environmental destruction, greed, corruption, spiralling inequality, foodbanks, political incompetence, aggressive tax dodgers, Tory buffoons, Brexit. It’s enough to get you down in hellish ways best captured by Dante in Canto VII of ‘Inferno’, the Fourth Circle.

“Uplit” (https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/2019/01/221947/best-uplifting-books-up-lit) offers you a Sabbath day off from the gloom. Designed to lift your spirits, a title from this genre is appropriate at Easter when the sap is rising and the prospect of love seems almost credible.

None could be more appropriate than The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry because it revolves around an independent bookshop, and celebrates the power of books and reading.

The novel is about a middle-aged man who owns a failing independent bookstore on Alice Island off the coast of Massachusetts. Depressed for the previous two years following the death of his wife, Fikry is lonely, angry and a literary snob. Island Books, where “No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World” stocks only those titles that satisfy his exacting tastes.

“I do not like postmodernism, post-­apocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn’t be — basically gimmicks of any kind. . . . I do not like genre mash-ups à la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy. Literary should be literary, and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and — I imagine this goes without saying — vampires”. There is a book reviewer of this parish known to me with identical views.

Unsurprisingly the store is quiet, and Fikry has few friends. Things worsen when his most valuable possession, a first edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tamerlane is stolen. Into the slough of despond he descends, until someone unexpected shows up in the sparsely stocked children’s section. A little bundle of joy and redemption completely changes his life. Fikry discovers that books and reading can bind lives as surely as any shared love.

This feel good tale is distinguished by its setting. Zevin knows the book-selling business, the overly optimistic sales reps, the neighbourhood book groups and the desperate spirit of the bricks-and-mortar store filled with bound volumes in the Kindle age. The author offers a comical set piece with an out-of-town author three sheets to the wind, and there’s a poignant story about the fate of competent but overlooked writing.

This is an entertaining novel, modest, engaging and funny without being too cloying or sentimental. Furthermore, it is genuinely optimistic about the future of books, bookstores and the people who love both. Share the love. Be uplifted.

Gabrielle Zevin

260 pages in Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

First published 2014

ISBN 978-1616203214