I believe it was those pop sages ABBA who once intoned in one of their marvellously-attractive songs that “Love isn’t Easy (But It Sure is Hard Enough)”.
A perfect mix of early ’70s folk-pop, Swedish harmonies and life truisms doesn’t feature anywhere in The Book Ninja by Ali Berg and Michelle Kalus but the sentiment which drives it most certainly does, with this utterly beguiling and consistently well-written novel full of all kinds of pithy, beautifully-articulated musings on the nature of love, relationship and the tricky art of keeping them alive and kicking.
Frankie, known to the tax office as Frankston Rose – first name after the train station in Melbourne and no, she’d rather not go too deeply into that particular story; her mother Putu, a free spirit with inclinations to yoga, New Age philosophies and boundary-crashing, however has no such inhibitions and will tell you everything – has a pretty wonderful life on the surface.
Frankie’s best friends with lifelong pal Cat who employs the inveterate reader and ardent bibliophile at The Little Brunswick Street Bookshop where they discuss life, books and the meaning of life (and a host of other things such as the dishy Jon Soo who runs the local K-Pop exercise class), and she has a lovely, if overbearing, mother and much put-upon father, and has been published even if the rather negative reviews for her second book left her wondering if that particular accomplishment represents much of an achievement after all.
What she doesn’t have is a boyfriend since Adam aka Ads left her a couple of years back and while she’s not the kind of girl to define herself in terms of a man, she wouldn’t mind having a guy with whom she can discuss her great love of books (but no YA because, well, let’s just say Frankie is a little against that particular genre, at least at the start of the book).
“Over the next few week I will stealthily ninja said books (everything from Atkinson to Zafón) on various train and tram services travelling in and out of the city. My hope? For a man to find one, read it, and be so deeply and irrevocably moved by the words (because he has superb taste in books, is obviously intelligent and has his shit together) that he is compelled to contact me. We shall then hit it off. Date for a few months. Move in together. Get married. And before you can say Fitzwilliam Darcy, live happily ever after with three kids, two Dalmatians and an American walnut veneer bookshelf, of course.” (P. 24)
So being an unconventional woman who doesn’t mind going out on a limb or speaking her mind – sure it’s an approach that has some risks but when she accidentally kisses a hunky male customer named Sunny on the nose one day (long story) it pays off big time – she decides to start leaving copies of books she loves on trains and trams throughout Melbourne, with her details on the seventh-last page of the book. (They have to work for this people – Frankie isn’t just going to hand her good self to them on a platter!)
Thus do titles like The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne end on Route 86 tram to Bundoora RMIT via Smith Street, and Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks find a hopefully temporary home on the South Morang train line towards South Morang; it’s an epically-romantic gambit with no guarantee of success, but Frankie figures that it’s worth a shot and might, just might, find her the love of her life.
What it also does is get her back into the writing she abandoned a few years back when some book reviewers handed out some rather bitter, nay fatally caustic reviews, with the blog charting her unorthodox literarily-influenced romantic adventures capturing the imagination of the blogosphere and even her old publisher.
It’s a win-win all round although none of the men, and there are some literate, clever, intelligent and sweet men who find the books and email her, really come close to ticking all the boxes or filling the considerable emotional vacuum left by Ads.
However, and this is the loveliest spanner in the works that any gal has ever had to contend with, things with Sunny pick up to the point where emotionally-intimacy averse Frankie – you can see where this might cause a problem in a geographically-expansive search for love – has to decide which she wants more – a future with the quirky, YA-loving hunky sweet caring Sunny (who naturally has a secret) or a publishing deal based on her ever-increasingly popular blog?
What’s a girl lost in life to do?
Quite a bit in fact, what with trying to sort out her ever more-complicated love life, the messiness of Cat’s marriage to Claud and some, ahem extracurricular activities, the love life of 17-year-old Sebastian aka Seb and trying to keep her mother close but not too close.
There’s a lot of amusing, richly-insightful narrative momentum right there, and Berg and Kalus make merry with it, offering up a book pleasingly, often adorably, rich in vibrant characters, sparkling dialogue that dances along with wit and vivacity and some delightful twists-and turns worthy of the very best romantic comedies.
That is what The Book Ninja essentially is – a very, very good Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn-level rom-com, and a passionately-fun love letter to writing, reading and books, that is right up there with the best of anything found in Frankie’s beloved books or the many movies which populate the genre.
Right at the centre of everything is extraordinarily delightful friendship between Frankie and Cat which is absolute pleasure to be a part of on every single page.
These two longstanding friends are silly, serious, whimsical, quirky and heartfelt and you would have to have a heart of concrete encased in stone to not fall in love with how fabulous flawed but appealingly and winningly human these two brilliantly-written characters are.
“Frankie was crouched in the front window, absentmindedly rearranging a display of children’s picture books next to a sign announcing upcoming Book Week celebrations. Koala Lou, Loni and the Moon, Under the Love Umbrella, No One Likes a Fart. Sitting among these sweet and hilarious and poignant stories, she suddenly yearned to be young and unencumbered by adult worries and complications, but her thoughts were interrupted by cat’s exasperated rant about how from Snow White to War and Peace to The Kite Runner, too many mothers are conveniently killed off in literature. ‘What kind of example is it setting for our children?’ she yelled.” (P. 226-227)
They feel like real, endlessly-supportive, unconditional friends, their dialogue is witty, clever, sharp and funny and there’s not really a scene I can recall where they don’t feel like the kinds of people you would love to be friends with and see as often as possible.
The characters who satellite around them such as Frankie’s parents, Sebastian, Cat’s absurdly-handsome, knitting obsessed husband Claud and of course, the turtle-giving Sunny who feels real and grounded even as he is impossibly wonderful in all his ways, are every bit as richly-realised, adding to a cast of characters whose struggles feel real, whose tactics to deal with them make sense and whose flaws and foibles feel all too relatable, and heartwarmingly real.
Its rom-com and character-richness aside, and honestly The Book Ninja is fit to bursting with them to a joyously extravagant degree, this gorgeous novel is a declaration of neverending love to reading and literature, a passionate love affair to which I innately relate after a lifetime of reading which has provided both solace and escape, joy and provocation, comfort and joy, and guidance.
A life without books is something I, and Frankie and Cat, cannot imagine, and it is a central feature of a book which celebrates a real-life initiative Books on the Rail which encourages people to leave books they love on public transport for random people to discover, read, and naturally, fall in love with.
The Book Ninja is one of those rare books that is happily light and fluffy and yet inestimably substantial, a celebration of books, friendship, love and quirky ups-and-downs of life that will delight and enchant you and leave you wishing you could spend more time with the characters and places you come to love beyond measure, people who remind you how fulfilling a life can be when you surrender to the very best things around you, whether that’s books, friends and family, or a kissable stranger who wanders in your bookstore one day and changes your life forever.