You would be hard pressed to find an avid reader anywhere who doesn’t possess an enduring love affair with bookshops.
They are a magical place, full of ripe possibility, opportunities without number to pursue lives wholly different from your own, to become a pirate, a 18th century tycoon of industry, a colonist in outer space.
Whatever your predilection, it’s usually there.
One person who isn’t entirely convinced of this, at least at first, is Valerie, a young woman with her eye on a prized career as a business consultant who is dragooned against her will into running her Aunt Charlotte’s decaying bookshop Ringelnatz & Co. (drawn from the pen name of German author Hans Bötticher) when the mysterious old woman simply ups and leaves one night, and disappears for a year.
She is the protagonist of Thomas Montasser’s A Very Special Year, which documents with small episodic events and a cast of revolving, almost too-minor characters, the way in which the shambolic yet richly-stocked tiny bookshop, set amongst a neighbourhood greatly changed from the post-war years when the shop was established, changes Valerie from hard-edged business wanna-be to a woman happy to spend her autumn evenings sitting on the street with tea from her aunt’s samovar, watching the world go by, reading a book and comversing with passers-by.
“A cabinet of fantasies, a source of knowledge, a collection of lore from past and present, a place to dream … A bookshop can be so many things. Of course, on a very banal level it is also a store of printed matter to be sold to customers. But anyone who engages with the diversity a bookshop offers can experience epiphanies of a quite different and exceptionally sensual nature!” (P. 43)
In that respect, it is a sweetly intoxicatingly book, a passionate ode in its own relaxed, slowly-unfurling way – its pace, over an all-too-short 166 pages, mirrors Valerie’s gradual transformation – to bookshops, and book, and the way they can change lives when you least expect it.
There are a number of lovely observations throughout the book that capture in charming detail, and unerring accuracy, just how magical and wonderful it is to wander into a bookshop and particularly one that fits you and your reading style like a glove.
For all bookshops have a distinct personality, opines Montasser, a reflection of their owner’s literary inclinations but also of the customers who over time shape its look and feel with their varied reading requests.
In that respect, A Very Special Year, which also references a strange but wonderful book which appears blank at first but which fills in words to match your life path – like much of the book however, this is underplayed as a plot device, resulting in an ending that should be more magically transportive than it is – is a delight to read, a tribute to the power of books to shape and reshape our lives.
But it’s greatest strength almost becomes its achills heels as an enjoyable reading experience.
Rather than an immersive love affair with literature and bookstores, we are given instead small episodes here and there that while rich with insight and personal change, don’t exist long enough to fully capture how powerfully Ringelnatz & Co. changes the lives of Valerie and those stray customers who come into its welcoming surrounds.
You are no sooner coming to enjoy a customer’s presence and their small part in Valerie’s journey of reinvention than they are gone, consigned to the narrative dust as the novel moves on to another episode that is also lamentably a tad too threadbare.
Granted it is a short book, more novella than novel at times, but there are some extraordinarily enriching ideas contained within, all of which could have used some filling-out, further elucidation, to make them really come alive and sing.
“Discovering a book meant freely rising above the demands of everyday life and uprooting your own existence from the here and now in order to plant it elsewhere.” (P. 127)
They begin to wax lyrical about the wonder of books to provide a safe place for a loner school child to feel safe and free or an expatriate from Iran, trapped in a menial job, to recapture, for a moment, his inherently-incisive intellect and love of literature, or an odd young man to possibly win over the heart of Valerie to a life of books, bookshops and of course, him.
Nothing in the plot is particularly, gobsmackingly original but much of it is rich, true and real, observations that anyone with even a passing love of reading will immediately see the authenticity of, and want to luxuriate in for as long as possible.
It feels that A Very Special Year is barely getting started before it ends, a thesis that begins to be explained but barely, a love affair with books and the homes they inhabits before they are whisked away by eager readers, that barley begins to be expressed before it is silenced by a finale that feels half-baked and ill-prepared for.
It’s not that A Very Special Year isn’t a charming, emotionally-evocative read – there is a great deal about it that illustrates with perfect clarity and affection how much books can give us if we are receptive – but that it never really gets going, vignettes of wisdom and emotional truth that aren’t given enough time to fully express the wonder and joy that reading offers and will continue to offer no matter the age.