Review: Vivien Horler
The Librarian, by Salley Vickers (Viking/ Penguin)
My dad was an engineer with Shell when I was a child and we moved every two years until I was 14 years old. This meant friendships were forever being cut short, but it also helped give me a love of books.
In every town we lived there was a children’s library, except at first in Walvis Bay, where one day to my delight my mother found one of Richmal Crompton’s William books in the shelves of the adult library.
Books often stood in for friends and today remain a comfort, a joy, and sometimes a challenge.
Or as Salley Vickers says of her protagonist in The Librarian: “Books became her silent allies and sometimes her more-than-friends.”
A children’s library in a small English country town is the subject of Vickers’s delightful new novel set in the late 1950s.
Sylvia Blackwell is 24 when she becomes the children’s librarian in a room full of dusty books with titles like A Child’s History of Palestine, Jesus at Play, Caring for your Guinea Pig and The Joys of Obedience.
With the help of Dee, the straight-talking and licentious library assistant, Sylvia gets stuck into cataloguing the library, chucking out books that no one has borrowed for years and ordering new ones more likely to appeal to children of the 1950s.
She also moves into a damp little end-of-terrace house with a grumpy neighbour on one side and a field with two donkeys on the other.
At first she knows no one, but soon makes friends with a family two doors down who have a delightful 11-year-old son, Sam, and a wild pair of small twin daughters. Others she meets are Lizzie, who is not expected to pass the 11-plus exam, and whom she coaches to success. And then there is bold, confident Marigold, the doctor’s daughter, and indeed the (married) doctor himself with whom Sylvia falls in love.
One night a terrible storm hits the town, damaging the adult library roof, which means many adult bookshelves have to be moved into the children’s library, including the Restricted Access Cupboard. Soon afterwards, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, then considered extremely risqué and the subject of obscenity trials, is “stolen” from the cupboard.
The day before he is due to write the 11-plus exam – a life-changing exam that meant children went on either to upmarket grammar schools or downmarket secondary moderns – Sam is interviewed by the police in connection with the “theft”. Sylvia is distraught – it was her key that was used to gain access to the cupboard – but she believes Marigold is behind the escapade.
This is the story of a furore set in a small post-war town, a love story, a tale of children dashing off to London to hear Cliff Richard sing, of dog walks along the canal towpath that provide cover for illicit meetings.
In her elegant, precise prose, Vickers writes in detail about small-town concerns, jealousies and tale-telling. Her evocation of the countryside is wonderful, as is Sylvia’s innocence as she falls into an adulterous affair. Vickers also hints at issues that today are full-blown scandals, such as the way Dee’s husband goes off with his boys’ club, and how the five-year-old twins like to pull down their knickers for the visual delight of the school caretaker.
And of course The Librarian is a celebration of children’s literature. Great children’s books are discussed and lent to young borrowers, including Swallows and Amazons, The Borrowers, Tom’s Midnight Garden, What Katy Did, I Capture the Castle, Anne of Green Gables and many more. A list of the author’s favourites is included.
Vickers says in an author’s note that she has named Sylvia Blackwell after a librarian from her own childhood. “It is to Miss Blackwell that I owe many of the books and characters that have informed not only my writing life but probably my whole take on life, what seems to me to matter most…”
This is a delightful and often hilarious novel, although not without hints of darkness.