REVIEW: The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted by Robert Hillman
Can one unlikely bookshop heal two broken souls?
It is 1968 in rural Australia and lonely Tom Hope can’t make heads or tails of Hannah Babel. Newly arrived from Hungary, Hannah is unlike anyone he’s ever met–she’s passionate, brilliant, and fiercely determined to open sleepy Hometown’s first bookshop.
Despite the fact that Tom has only read only one book in his life, when Hannah hires him to install shelving for the shop, the two discover an astonishing spark. Recently abandoned by an unfaithful wife–and still missing her sweet son, Peter–Tom dares to believe that he might make Hannah happy. But Hannah is a haunted woman. Twenty-four years earlier, she had been marched to the gates of Auschwitz.
Dear Mr. Hillman,
I had eyed this book when netgalley first offered it but the subject matter made me pause.Broken souls? Lonely and abandoned farmer? Then the real hard hitter – a heroine who had been in Auschwitz. I decided, no. Then I heard accolades and hesitantly circled back for another moment of contemplation. Then I decided – why not? – to read the excerpt. It was doing that which changed my mind and made me ask to read it.
Well, I won’t beat around the bush. The writing is wonderful. Tom sounds like an Aussie farmer – stoic, hardworking, more at ease with an ute engine and animals than people but also a man who has loved and lost and decided that he’s going to do better, work harder at making his wife happy and feeling that she’s loved if she ever comes back to him. Only after she does, pregnant by another man, that doesn’t work either. Their marriage turns into roommates rather than partners. Yet Trudy left Tom with someone he can nurture and in loving his wife’s child, Tom discovers that he’s a great father. Until that too is taken away.
Tom is hesitant about the new bookseller in town. That store has hosted failed businesses before and the idea that this small Australian town would support a bookstore is not one Tom believes will happen. The woman is clearly mad, intelligent and foreign, but mad. Still if she wants bookshelves built, Tom can do that and weld her store sign and then fall under her spell.
Hannah Babel is exuberant and cheerful, filled with the idea of opening her store and selling wonderful books. She has a reason for it and a set number of books she wants to sell, not that she’s told Tom what that is. Instead they fall into love as easily and sweetly as they fall into bed and Tom discovers that this can be a place of joy and playfulness. He’ll eat Hannah’s Hungarian food and tell her “it’s fine” when clearly it isn’t to him. Which exasperates Hannah who tells him he must tell her if he doesn’t like something.
And then the flashback chapters begin and Hannah’s road from Budapest to Auschwitz, to slave labor hacking tank traps out of the frozen ground, to farther into Poland as the Russians are advancing, to life after she’s survived out of all of her large family is told. These are told with spare economy and a lack of sentimentality or melodrama. The events are, themselves, enough to catch at your throat and mind. They need no additional embellishment to make them heartrending.
Hannah tells Tom a little, just a little, about her losses but doesn’t dwell on them. Her life after the war she tells him more about but still she prefers to live in today. There are times when Tom sees Hannah drifting away mentally to somewhere dark and distant which she won’t talk about and those are the times when she withdraws emotionally. But they love each other and isn’t that enough? It was, until a person from Tom’s past with an equal claim to his love appears. A person who takes Hannah back to her worst loss which threatens to tear everything apart.
There are parts of this book I love, parts I adore. Tom and Hannah’s wedding is a hoot and I wondered if Hannah ever mastered that essential Aussie wedding dessert – the layered trifle. I loved seeing Tom’s competence at what he can do best – discover what’s wrong with an engine, make gorgeous shelves for Hannah’s store or give love from a deep well inside him that rarely runs dry. Tom’s just a good bloke. When people say “Good on ya, Tom” they mean it because he is.
Hannah is unlike anyone that most of these Aussies have ever encountered. Most are skeptical of a bookstore staying in business but are willing to poke their heads in and take a look. And maybe find a long lost favorite or that book that they need as they work their way through a best books list. Her flamboyance startles them but after a while, she begins to grow on them and they begin to think she might be worthy of their Tom. These people are, deep down, very protective of Tom.
There are many things that need TRIGGER WARNINGS This is set in farm country and farmers must look after their herds. When a pack of dogs goes feral and kill sheep, the dogs must be and are killed. The events Hannah lives through aren’t embroidered on but are told – death, near starvation, fear of fleeing Germans, Russians, soldiers and the memory of one camp officer who egotistically directed human beings into lines of (temporary) life or into immediate death. But the other warning is about the child Tom had loved and been a father to. Sucked into a cultist Christian camp, Peter endures and plots to go back to Tom. I did have to steel myself about him. Yes, there is a happy ending but I did mentally cheer when the fanatical person most responsible for what happened to him is dealt with.
And it is Peter who takes Hannah back to her past and her most agonizing loss. She must finally face the dark place she’d pushed those feelings into. By starting to take Peter into her heart and assuage her grief, will she betray that loss? This is a book in which awful things happen to nice people. Characters face horrible situations. Sometimes there are no answers for why. Sometimes the demons of the past will (figuratively) emerge. Sometimes even a deep love will be tested. In this, it’s like real life.
This is a book that I know won’t be for everyone. And I wouldn’t recommend it be tried if any of the trigger warnings apply. I also found that parts of the second half of the book felt a bit more choppy and not as easy and polished as the rest. But I am glad that I read it and feel that it will stick with me for a while. B