Book review: The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix

(cover image courtesy Allen & Unwin)

In one sense, there is nothing in The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix that you haven’t read a thousand times before in any number of fantasy books where an ordinary everyday mortal discovers they have a far richer and more fantastical inheritance than they could ever have imagined.

In 1983 London, which is close but just different enough to our own reality, newly arrived in London art student Susan Arkshaw finds out that the absent father of her childhood whom she is seeking is nothing like she thought and in fact, has a far more magical persona that her mother, Jassmine, who was loathe to divulge much about her partner, has ever let on.

This revelation unfolds after she meets Merlin, one of the left-handed booksellers of the title, who turns her “uncle” Frank, with whom she is reluctantly staying, into a pile of dust with a single pin prick, setting in chain a series of mind-blowing events that upturn the trajectory of Susan’s life and call into question everything of which she was once certain.

So far, so read it all, right?

Actually, quite, quite wrong my mortal coming into contact with the immortal magical realms friends for Nix, a man with a penchant for cleverly and originally told tales, takes this well-worn idea and crafts something wholly, adventurously fun out of it, turning The Left-Handed Booksellers of London into the sort of book that upends your expectations every bit as much as Susan’s.

Much of that imaginative playfulness comes down to Susan, who though she sees things far beyond her initial understanding, things that might shock the rest of us into quiet submission, remains groundedly down-to-earth even in the most over the top of situations.

Swallowed by a giant wolf? Sure, she’s calm. Confronting ancient magical powers on a mountainous scale? Of course, no sweat. Commanding living things to do her bidding? Well, if that’s the way it works, then why not.

“Susan smiled, thinking about what all this meant. Her subconscious hard at work fantasising, fuelled by two many fantasy novels and a childhood diet of Susan Cooper, Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. The brook creature and the huge ravens and the earth lizard should all make up a nightmare, but actually it wasn’t frightening. Quite the reverse, in fact. She always felt strangely comforted after she had a dream.” (P. 3)

And yet for all her adaptability, which shocks her more than it does anyone else, Susan is also the consummate outsider, someone who views the sorts of things that Merlin and his sister Vivien, and the vast extent of their magical bookselling family, as anyone thrown into the deep end of alternate, dangerous realms would.

She reacts throughout the book as any of us would, even after she has seen the Old World as its known, with its goblins, water-fays and god-like beings, comes crashing into the new, human-dominated world of cars, roads and houses, infusing The Left-Handed Booksellers of London with a giddy sense of riotous disbelief.

Having a character who is both now in and out of the inner circle, by virtue of a turn of circumstance that is best left to the reading, is an unrivalled delight that allows Nix to tell the kind of coming-of-age story that is the staple of many a fantasy novel, with a vibrant “what the hell?!” just happened sensibility that elevates beyond the usual story of this ilk.

Even as the narrative unfolds and some fairly not-of-this-world insanity breaks forth, courtesy of a power struggle that suggests the Old and New Worlds may not be so different after all, Susan remains resolutely stunned by everything she sees, throwing a sardonic air into proceedings.

Garth Nix (image courtesy official Garth Nix Twitter account)

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London is a rip-roaring, convention-trouncing cauldron of animated fun – just watch what else you do with these vessels of powerful magic – that glories in the merging of two distinctly different realms and all the tropes and cliches that come with it while turning these self-same tropes and cliches gloriously, amusing and emotionally affectingly on their heads.

Helping this approach is Nix’s obvious gift for knowing when too much might turn the joke into some sort of cheapshot parody.

Throughout its utterly beguiling, pedal-to-the-metal run, which unfolds with a giddy freneticism that stills allows the characters time to breathe in ways that feel real and relatable – they are not simply puppet-like plot devices to react as the ceaseless narrative demands – Susan is as much a woman in control of her own now-unrecognisable destiny as she is an astounded outside whose brain is a chaotic, pinball-zinging repetition of “WTF?!”

In other words, for all her quick responses and witty oneliners, she never feels like anything less than a person coming richly and fully into their own.

She’s an outsider for sure, with her quiet life in the country with her airy-fairy mum who is beginning to remember things she thought long forgotten, not even hinting at what she is now experiencing and who she really is, but she is also someone who’s clever, adaptable and eminently capable and who, though she is challenged beyond anything any of us have ever experienced, manages to not just cope but excel, all while remaining happily and relatably human.

“Who exactly to call was a little puzzling. She supposed dialling 999 would be easiest, and the police would inform the booksellers. But she had a slight nagging doubt caused by Merlin’s suspicions that one of the booksellers might actively be involved in whoever or whatever was trying to kidnap her. So it might be better to try and lie low.” (P. 238)

Throw in some mystery – both Susan and Merlin, who delights in treating masculine conventions with the scorn they deserve, dressing and acting in what gender role feels right at the time, are trying to find out the truth about their respective missing parent – and you have in The Left-Handed Booksellers of London the type of alternate urban fantasy book that feels comfortable and yet deliciously different all at once.

That is, by any measure, quite an accomplishment in a world where retreads and reimaginings can often tired and uninspired and where rehashing what is commonly a part of a genre is far more usual than it is not.

Nix refreshingly goes to town, playing out with all the tropes and cliches in the fantasy toolbox in a way that feels so delightfully original that you don’t feel, at the end, that you have read a standard coming-of-age tale at all.

In a sense, as noted, you have, but in almost every other significant way you have not, with The Left-Handed Booksellers of London one of the most exuberantly different urban fantasy novels to come along in some time, a novel whose world, or worlds rather, is an absolute exhilaratingly vivacious joy to spend time in and which you will wish fervently as book’s end, is somewhere Nix chooses to visit again.

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