Book review: History brought to book

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Mystery thrills and love - Nicky Pellegrino finds something for everyone.

Charlie Lovett is a book collector who lives in the US and England.
Charlie Lovett is a book collector who lives in the US and England.

Ever since I finished The Bookman's Tale by Charlie Lovett (Text) I've been recommending it to everyone. It's just one of those novels.

A literary mystery, a time-travelling thriller, a love story: there is something to satisfy fans of most genres.

It's the mid-90s and antiquarian bookseller Peter Byerly is living a solitary life in a Welsh cottage following the death of his adored wife Amanda. Forcing himself to return to work he visits a shop in Hay-on-Wye where he comes across an 18th-century book on Shakespeare forgeries. He opens its pages to discover slipped inside a watercolour portrait of a woman with the face of his late wife. Shock is replaced by curiosity. The painting is at least a century old so it cannot possibly be Amanda yet it looks exactly like her. And so Peter becomes determined to solve the mystery.

This story has three strands. It moves back in time to Peter's student years in North Carolina and tells how the lonely young man becomes passionate about books and Amanda. Then we are taken further back still, to London in 1592, and the apparently unconnected tale of a rascally bookseller Bartholomew Harbottle drinking ale in a tavern with a group of great writers all intent on bad-mouthing "the upstart Shakespeare".

Upon learning his good friend Robert Greene is on his deathbed, Harbottle hastens to his side. Greene gives him a first-edition copy of his novel, Pandosto, to sell to cover some of his debts. Instead Harbottle keeps it, eventually lending it to Shakespeare who uses the book as the basis for The Winter's Tale, filling it with scrawled notes in the process.

The three strands of this story do come together but there are twists, turns and skulduggery aplenty along the way.

Peter becomes fascinated with the puzzle of his dead wife's portrait. His obsession takes him deep into the worlds of Victorian art and literature, of forgeries and scoundrels, of the debate about who really penned Shakespeare's works, and even of murder.

There is a romance to paper books now that they are being replaced by machines; a nostalgia for them as beautiful objects that can last for centuries. This novel is filled with it; but it also has fast-moving adventure and suspense, an involving depth of emotion and a pleasing eccentricity. It's an intelligent piece of writing - not in that faux Dan Brown way but by no means pretentious either.

The author Lovett is a book collector who lives between the US and rural England. A writer of children's plays and with two other novels published, The Bookman's Tale is a fusion of his own passions and has been his big breakthrough.

Of course there are flaws; there always are. For instance, I'm not entirely convinced that someone as wimpy as Peter would embroil himself in so much danger; also there's a little bit of that "cute-England-through-American-eyes" thing going on. But for me that didn't make this novel any less captivating.

So yes, I'm recommending The Bookman's Tale to everyone who loves books as much as I do.

- Herald on Sunday

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