Book review: The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted by Robert Hillman

(cover image courtesy Text Publishing)

 

We are so in love, as a species, with the admittedly very attractive idea of love that we often over-romanticise it.

Decking it with roses and chocolates, viewing with rose-coloured glasses and Vaseline-tinted lenses, love is elevated as a warm-and-fuzzy ideal which can answer and make up for all wrongs, a triumphant force that brooks no opposition and emerges victorious every time.

All of its persuasive power is true to an extent; we wouldn’t lionise it the way we do if it wasn’t.

But in Robert Hillman’s exquisitely well-written, deeply moving and unwaveringly insightful novel, The Book Shop of the Broken Hearted, love’s power is framed as it should be – enormously transformative yes, but not the slam dunk, easy trip to happiness that Hallmark would have you believe.

It’s power is unchallenged and suitably reverenced but in a way that recognises the extraordinary evil and terror that can come against it; in that way, we come to see love, real, tenacious love, as even more powerful because it has to overcome real, horrific obstacles to find its true expression.

“Hannah had no sense of mission, no desire to convert the masses to art. But she kept count of the books she sold. Her target was twenty-five thousand, the approximate number of books burnt in Berlin on May 10th, 1033. At the moment she was selling around 110 books each week with the help of the CWA. So four years, five years. The delight for her when someone emerged from a house in the town, from a farmhouse twenty miles away, and brought to the counter a book that the students had set ablaze: The Trial, A Farewell to Arms, Women in Love, Anna Karenina, The War of the Worlds, Ulysses.” (P. 195)

Set in country Victoria, The Book Shop of the Broken Hearted is primarily the tale of Hannah Babel, an émigré from Europe in the 1960s who is the sole survivor of her Hungarian Jewish family, a cultured woman with the ability to speak multiple languages who is a force of nature and an ardent evangelist for the power of literature to change lives, but who is forever scarred by her nightmarish experiences in Auschwitz.

Her love, her capacity, has been severely tested to breaking point, with the loss of close family members, a husband and a young son weigh heavily on her soul, as of course it would.

Hillman sensitively balances flashback chapters to the Holocaust in which Hannah must fight, and fight hard, to survive against impossible odds – there’s no place here, it seems, for the marshmallow-soft love of Hollywood rom-coms and greeting cards – with Hannah’s attempts to set up a bookshop in the fictional Victorian town of Hometown, a place, in the late 1960s of conservative values and firm opinions and one which Tom Hope has accidentally come to call home.

A farmer of a small holding outside of town which used to belong to his Uncle Frank, Tom is a sensitive, thoughtful man who buys meat and groceries in town because he can’t bear the idea of slaughtering his own animals.

As traditionally masculine and emotionally reticent as they come on the outside, Tom is, like Hannah but in vastly different ways, a deep pool of emotions that is constantly seeking to find a way out.

 

Robert Hillman (image courtesy Text Publishing)

 

In his case, initially at least, it is with Trudy, a woman who commits to loving him, wants to love him but is finally unable to do so; hers is a shaky, needy love, one that runs away and comes back and runs away leaving Tom reeling and taking away Peter, his son in all but blood, his love for whom is entrenched, real and true in a way that for and from Trudy can never be.

Left reeling when Trudy decamps to a Jesus camp, read cult, on Phillip Island which spruiks true love but evidences anything but, Tom doesn’t believe he will ever find love again.

But he does, unexpectedly with Hannah when he’s called upon to help fit out her shop, and it’s the love these two markedly different people find for each other that fills with the narrative and sets the tone for the rest of this powerfully-affecting book.

But the love between Hannah and Tom, while true and transformative in all the very best ways, is also competing with great heartache and loss, the kind that doesn’t simply go away with a murmured word of affection or passionate nights in bed.

Tom is a smart man, he knows that something is haunting his new love; but for much of the book only we are truly privy to the catastrophic burden Hannah is carrying and the way the love she feels for Tom, while expansive and beautifully alive, is constrained and shaped by a past marked by more death and sadness than anyone should ever experience.

“He [Tom] wanted to be the person who took Bernie Shaw’s rifle from him before it had been fired; the person who said “Pastor, let them go,’ and was heard; the man standing beside Hannah in Auschwitz, holding the child when she lost consciousness.” (P. 252)

The Book Shop of the Broken Hearted is love in the trenches, quite literally at times, a testament to the way love can sustain us but can also act as a reminder of what we have lost.

Hillman insightfully explores in ways both grim and uplifting that by over-romanticising love, we rob it of its true power and ability to take a life and start it over again, in ways that must fight the current of the past and constantly reassure that this time it will stand.

You can’t blame Hannah for her reluctance to fully commit to the love she finds with him; she desperately wants to and in many ways does, but there is something holding her back, something which resides in the vacant stares and the mercurial changes of mood, and for much of the book, both she and Tom are hostage to it.

Love in Hillman’s achingly beautiful and matter-of-fact world is something robust and substantial, mighty and real, that confronts the daily pain and reality of human existence and is sometimes, in our human perspective at least, found wanting.

It gets there in the end of course, but the journey to that place, that imperfect but wonderful place, fills The Book Shop of the Broken Hearted with vigour and beauty, love in its most honest of incarnations and a never less-than-present sense that we do ourselves a disservice when we reduce love solely to its romantic parts, since in the process we lose sight of the way it can spring back against even the most implacable of odds, but not without journeying through considerable pain and sadness first.

 

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