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True to her shelf

Bookseller faces opposition in film, writes Philip Halcrow

Violet is calm about trampling over Florence’s dreams

A YOUNG widow wants to turn an old, dilapidated house into a bookshop. It’s a novel idea in 1959 in the fictional backwater that provides the setting for The Bookshop, released at cinemas yesterday (Friday 29 June). The town has not seen anything like it before.

In the film adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel, Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) is determined to open a new chapter in the life of Hardborough. But not everyone is ready to go with the Flo. Some townspeople seem mysteriously attached to her proposed premises, the Old House, a building that they have all left empty for years. The haughty Mrs Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) speaks of her own ambition to turn the Old House into an arts centre. Quietly but maliciously, she tries to get her own way.

But Florence has allies. Schoolgirl Christine (Honor Kneafsey) may not like books (yet) but she is happy to work part-time in the shop. And Florence’s venture has grabbed the attention of the reclusive Edmund (Bill Nighy). He invites her to send him whatever books she chooses. So she makes up a parcel for him that contains, among other titles, Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi novel about a future world in which books are outlawed.

Edmund becomes not only a valued customer but also a supporter. And Florence needs as much support as possible when she decides to order 250 copies of Nabokov’s new novel, Lolita. The excitement surrounding the controversial book provides Florence’s opponents with more ammunition.

Violet is prepared to use every trick in the book to get the shop closed.

She does not seem to buy into the view of Florence, who quotes from poet John Milton’s pamphlet in favour of unlicensed printing: ‘A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.’

Instead Violet is calm about trampling over Florence’s – and other people’s – dreams. All the while, she shows no sign of being aware that she demonstrates the truth about humanity summed up by Milton in Paradise Lost that all have become ‘corrupt’ in ‘both mind and will’.

Milton’s lines argue that everyone manages to be the villain of the piece at some point. It’s a truth explored in the book on which Milton based Paradise Lost.

The Bible insists that we are all capable of closing our eyes to the needs of others and closing our minds so that we hold on to prejudices while thinking we have everything sorted out. But it also outlines the chance for us to change the narrative of our lives.

In its pages, Jesus can be seen telling people that, if they accept the love that God has for them, they will receive forgiveness for the times when they let the worst parts of their character win out and they will gain a life beyond life.

He assured them: ‘Those who hear my words and believe in him who sent me have eternal life. They will not be judged but have already passed from death to life’ (John 5:24 Good News Bible).

Jesus’ words speak volumes. Their message is that the invitation to discover a new kind of life is open.

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