Brow Beat

The Coal-Black Genius of Penelope Fitzgerald

The film of The Bookshop leaves out the novel’s ghost—and defangs the uncanny Booker-winning novelist who created it.

In a still from The Bookshop, Mr. Brundish (Bill Nighy) sits at a desk covered in and surrounded by books.
Bill Nighy in The Bookshop.
Transmission Films

Where did the ghost go? I wondered this as I watched the Catalan director Isabel Coixet’s buttoned-up adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop. The novel is a deceptively mild but coal-black comedy about a woman who has the temerity to open a bookshop in a small town where no one, not even the local poltergeist, wants one. That poltergeist has vanished from the film, but the hole it leaves behind reveals the singular shape of Fitzgerald’s odd, roaring genius.

In the manner of someone who will not speak until she has something very worth saying, Fitzgerald did not publish her first fiction until she was 60. Still, she racked up awards. She was nominated for four Man Booker Prizes and carried one away, for her novel Offshore, about the ragtag dwellers of semiseaworthy houseboats on the Thames—but was treated at first with a bit of amused hauteur by the literary establishment, and her readership has never caught up to her reputation. Her books are crammed with indelible images, but The Bookshop, as far as I can figure, is the first to be brought to the screen.

In the novel, Florence Green (played by Emily Mortimer in the film) sets up her shop in a 500-year-old house with seawater in the cellar and a rapper, as the locals call them, prowling the upstairs hall. The real estate agent has delicately implied the spectral presence with the phrase “interesting period atmosphere.” Despite the somber lusciousness of the cinematography, it’s this uncanny atmosphere that Coixet, who also wrote the screenplay, seems determined to scrub away, along with much of the novel’s profound and offhand strangeness.

The mood in the film versus the book is set when Florence meets a local, Mr. Raven, one of the few villagers inclined to help her. In the movie, he’s a jolly ferryman who tosses her a rope to cleat off, which she catches with a look of faint puzzlement. In the book, he’s a vet in the salt marshes who calls her over to haul an old horse’s tongue out of the way so he can file the teeth sharp enough for it to chew.

“Now, Mrs Green, if you’d catch hold of the tongue. I wouldn’t ask everybody, but I know you don’t frighten.”

How do you know?” she asked.

“They’re saying that you’re about to open a bookshop. That shows you’re ready to chance some unlikely things.”

The poltergeist quickly takes the measure of Florence and of the bookshelves Mr. Raven has gotten the town boy scouts to build for her: “At various times in the night, behind every screw which the scouts had driven in, there would be a delicate sharp tap, as though they were being numbered for future reference.” Florence installs a cash register with a bell to ding over the sound.

The novel plunges deeper into unease. Florence and her 10-year-old assistant Christine take afternoon tea in the submarine light of her tiny drawing room, and this scene terrorizes: The two are chatting numbly across their fear while the rapper launches a full-on assault, holding hands as the temperature plummets. It’s a scene out of Shirley Jackson, transformed in the movie into a benign interlude of clinking teacups, awkward British silences, and the whimsy of solemn children.

The novel draws on Fitzgerald’s time behind the counter of a small-town bookshop, and her biographer, Hermione Lee, writes that she insisted the poltergeist was “an absolutely real manifestation.” And so it reads. Perhaps echoing her hope that her little shop will survive the town’s malicious efforts to shut it down, Florence tells Christine that the rapper can’t drive them out. “That doesn’t want us to go,” the girl mutters. “That wants us to stay and be tormented.”

After her first novel, The Golden Child, published when she was three-quarters through her life, Fitzgerald produced a matchless string of eight more. Sebastian Faulks wrote, “Reading a Fitzgerald novel is like being taken for a ride in a peculiar kind of car. Everything is of top quality—the engine, the coachwork and the interior all fill you with confidence. Then, after a mile or so, someone throws the steering-wheel out of the window.” Her novels get more modern with time, not less. Fragmentary, thrillingly laconic, they explode with peculiar visions of the birth of particle physics (The Gate of Angels), the Russian Revolution (The Beginning of Spring), or German Romantic philosophy and the inexplicable attachments of love (her last novel and masterpiece, The Blue Flower). The critic James Wood called The Blue Flower “one of the strangest and freest books ever written; Fitzgerald seems to be almost making up the form’s rules as she proceeds.” The German word Geist, Fitzgerald knew, meant not only ghost, but mind or spirit, and hers shines forth from her swift and agile fiction. She got better and better until she was gone.

Before Fitzgerald ever began to write, she was making a study of the way the world works, and all nine of her novels display an unsentimental compassion for the kind of people who are mulched under the heels of those with more ambition and ruthlessness. Florence has the intelligence to grasp the refinement of the cruelty arrayed against her, but she will neither fight nor yield, and so her fate is sealed. “While there’s life, there’s hope,” she says to her ally Mr. Brundish, played in the film by Bill Nighy. “What a terrifying thought that is,” he responds, a line delivered by Nighy with almost bebop syncopation.

The movie brims with a sincere reverence for books. That’s more than the novel can bring itself to do—Fitzgerald has a boy scout come to the shop every day after school to read another chapter of the deliciously kitsch I Flew With the Führer, marking his place with a sourball stuck on the end of a string. Sincerity is often the death of humor, and these frowning readers on the screen seem in actual pain as they turn their pages. A new and redemptive twist at the movie’s end, invented by Coixet, seems to argue that a bookshop is not a doomed enterprise. Fitzgerald, skeptical of redemption in any form, would have smashed her teacup.