Books & Literature

Book Review: The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, by Robert Hillman

The compelling tale of small-town farmer, Tom Hope, and exotic bookshop owner, Hannah in post-World War II Australia who discover each other against a backdrop of their own personal tragedies.

Set in the Australian countryside of 1969, The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted tells the compelling tale of small-town farmer Tom Hope and the exotic bookshop owner, Hannah – or rather, Madame Babel. World War II may have come to an end, but its scars still run deep in Hannah, who lost more than any woman ought. Tom, too, is well acquainted with loss as he grieves the departure of his wife and, more affectingly, a boy who was almost his.

Tom and Hannah make an unlikely couple and yet there’s a child-sized hole in both their lives that seems to ache in unison. Tom brings a beautiful depth to the meaning of paternal love, the type that is unhindered and untainted by adult mistakes and misfortunes. He’s an almost-father with love for a boy who is not his own – Peter – the result of his wife’s affair. It is once this love takes hold of Tom, that his wife then takes Peter away.

The vivaciously passionate Hannah personifies the struggle of losing oneself after they’ve lost their child. She plays the part of a vibrant lady however, her sensibilities inevitably betray her and her true character is revealed – a fragile mother in mourning, holding onto art, and now Tom, like a saving grace. It’s the glances back into Hannah’s history that become the most haunting part of the narrative.

The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted acts as a time capsule, capturing the aftermath of war, the complexities in the religious views of the day, and the back-breaking, and at times comical, life on a farm. As a work of historical fiction, The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted throws one headfirst into the thick of 1960s Australian culture and small-town life. It’s only in this place one can understand a character like Tom Hope and be swept up in his deep desire to please and to love.

Tom, a humble Australian bloke, too gentle to butcher his own sheep, with no legal right to the child he loves.

Hannah, a Hungarian-Jewish woman haunted by the memories of a concentration camp, and the brief moment in which her son was taken away.

Their common ground? A bookshop calling for Tom’s handy-man skills as it waits for Hannah to share her love of art and books with him and the rest of Hometown.

The bookshop itself has many identities. It’s intended name was Madame Babel’s, which swiftly changed to, simply, Hannah’s Bookshop. Then there’s the small hand-scrawled label Hannah sticks to the window, the words written in Hebrew, with no other devout Jew in town to read it – the bookshop of the broken hearted.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Calder
Twitter: @calder_lizzie

Rating out of 10: 8

Distributed by: Text Publishing
Released: April 2018
RRP: $29.99

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