Peter Byerly is in hiding. Hiding from his grief, from his family, and his friends. His beloved wife, Amanda, has died and the antiquarian bookseller is holed up in the cottage they had bought and renovated in the English village of Kingham. One day in Hay-on-Wye Peter enters a secondhand bookshop. No reason in particular, something just drew him there. While browsing the shop he finds a Victorian watercolor portrait hidden in the pages of an eighteenth-century book on Shakepearean forgery – it looks exactly like Amanda. But it can’t be her. Can’t be. But Peter steals the portrait anyway and so begins his adventure to unravel the mystery of the portrait. Which leads him, obliquely, to a mysterious first edition of Robert Greene’s Pandosto – a copy annotated by William Shakespeare himself.
Charlie Lovett has created a novel with three converging storylines: Peter’s slow return to life after the death of his wife, the story of Peter and Amanda’s relationship, and the provenance of the Pandosto. Peter and Amanda’s story serves to explain why the well of Peter’s grief is so deep and why Peter chose the world of antiquarian bookselling. The Pandosto storyline serves to tease the reader as Peter goes about tracking down its provenance – the reader knows the volume is authentic but the contemporary characters must find the evidence to prove it so. Nothing is given away too early.
The details in this book are lovely. In making Peter an antiquarian bookseller Lovett was able to draw on his own experiences in the trade. The feel of the paper, the quiet of Special Collections, the meticulous detail required to rebind a title (Lovett acknowledges a book by one of my ASMs, Annie, regarding the details). There’s even a mini-education regarding the competing Shakespeare theories (Stratfordian vs Oxfordian vs Baconian) and book forgery; for those already in the know it’s not too much information to be boring but just enough to fill in the gaps for those needing it. If you want to read more about antiquarian book collecting, or bibliophilia/bibliomania, or libraries I recommend anything by Nicholas Basbanes.
The main driving point in this book is the search for a Holy Grail – a single definitive primary document that will clear up a historical mystery for ever. For the academic or antiquarian who makes such a find – an authentic find – a career becomes legendary; fail to identify a fake and infamy results. A find like the Pandosto volume created for this novel is one such Grail. Books have taken on the literary Grail subject before and I’ve read quite a few (it’s sort of a favorite subgenre). Jasper Fforde sends up the genre with a Cardenio manuscript stolen from the Great Library within the book world in Lost in a Good Book. The Thirteenth Tale and Possession are both excellent dramatic novels where mystery and obsession swirls around the discovery of such documents and their relationship to those who seek them. The Bookman’s Tale is very similar to these because not only is the Grail physical for Peter in the form of the Pandosto it is also, at the same time, ephemeral: Amanda was his Grail and she is now lost to him.
The Bookman’s Tale is a Barnes and Noble Recommends pick for Summer 2013. It’s an excellent novel to read and while away steamy summer days under shady trees.
Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.