Reviews: Vivien Horler
Virgil Wander, by Leif Enger (Corsair)
The Diary of a Bookseller, by Shaun Bythell (Profile Books)
You know that feeling when you put down a book and say Ah! I was lucky enough to have read two of those in the past week, one fiction, one non-fiction.
They don’t have much in common, but they are both lovely. On second thoughts, maybe they do have something in common: they are both about small towns and a business at the centre of those communities.
Virgil Wander – not a great title, you’re not sure if that’s the name of the book or the name of the author – is the fictional offering. Virgil lives in the declining post-industrial town of Greenstone, Minnesota, on the shores of the vast Lake Superior, where he is both town clerk and the owner of an old moviehouse called the Empress Theater.
The action opens on the day Virgil is coming home from hospital after managing, in the middle of a North American snowstorm, to drive his Pontiac through the safety barrier and into the lake. He is rescued, suffering from concussion and an inability to remember adjectives.
At a loose end Virgil wanders down to the waterfront where he meets a stranger, an elderly kite-flier called Rune. Rune is Norwegian, and has come to Greenstone to find out what he can about the son he has just discovered he fathered on a holiday to the US in his youth.
Rune and his wife were unable to have children, so that the news he did in fact have a son has been a source of great joy. And while the son, Alec, a notable Greenstone baseball player of great local fame, has been killed in a flying accident, his widow and son still live in Greenstone. Suddenly Rune discovers he has a whole American family.
Rune moves in with Virgil, who discovers he has an unexpected passion for kite-flying. So, it turns out, do most people in Greenstone.
But of course it’s not all charming – Greenstone is planning a festival to draw visitors to the town, and the plan is to get one of Greenstone’s famous sons, the filmmaker Adam Leer, to deliver the main address. But Adam Leer is a strange and malevolent man, and no good can come of this.
Not a great deal happens in Virgil Wander, but the characters are wonderful, there’s a love story, and things get distinctly nail-biting at the end. A real Ah! book.
The Diary of a Bookseller, published last year, is a diary of a year in the life of a secondhand bookshop in Scotland’s Wigtown, written by its proprietor Shaun Bythell. Wigtown is Bythell’s home town and, aged about 30 and jobless, he goes to visit his parents to discover the bookshop is for sale. He tells the owner he has no money and the owner retorts: “You don’t need money – what do you think banks are for?”
Less than a year later Bythell takes over the shop, and discovers he should have read a piece by George Orwell published in 1936.
“Bookshop Memories rings as true today as it did then, and sounds a salutary warning to anyone as naïve as I was that the world of selling secondhand books is not quite an idyll of sitting in an armchair by a roaring fire with your slipper-clad feet up, smoking a pipe and reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall while a stream of charming customers engages you in intelligent conversation, before parting with fistfuls of cash.”
At least in 1936 Orwell didn’t have to deal with Amazon, which has had a devastating effect on the secondhand book trade, and Bythell has some pithy sentiments about the global giant.
Wigtown is in Galloway, an out-of-the-way corner of Scotland that is known for an abundance of bookshops and an annual book festival which attracts many visitors. Bythell, assisted by his eccentric sidekick Nicky, keeps the shop ticking over, tries and often fails to be polite to his customers, goes fishing and sailing with his friends, and heads off to the homes of people who have died to see if they have left any books worth buying.
Usually the volumes are dusty, sometimes mouse-eaten and rarely have any value at all. It’s a hand-to-mouth business, but it provides Bythell with a living of sorts and his experiences make for a wonderful tale.