The Little Wartime Library. Kate Thompson. 2022. 496 pages. [Source: Review copy]
First sentence: An old woman walks up the westbound platform of Bethnal Green Underground Station, moving painfully slowly on account of her arthritis.
Premise/plot: A book about libraries and books set during the Second World War??? YES please. That was my initial first impression.
The novel has a framework--for better or worse. The opening and closing chapters readers meet an elderly woman and her two daughters. The rest of the novel is set in London's East End during the Second World War. It alternates between two librarians (or one librarian and one librarian assistant). Clara Button is a widow who before the war was a children's librarian. During the war she is managing an underground--literally--library. Bethnal Green tube station is serving many functions these days--including a temporary library structure. She works closely with all classes, all ages. Ruby Monroe, her assistant, is a fiery/feisty vixen who loves living life big--living for today, throwing all caution [and morals] to the wind. She is carrying a burden, though she hates to let it show to just anyone. She encourages Clara, always, to take chances.
Ruby meets an American soldier, Eddie, with whom she has a whirlwind romance. He is smitten. She's less so, but, wouldn't it be lovely to dream of flying away to America after the war and starting over.
Clara meets an ambulance driver, Billy, who is hot and cold. She sometimes gets the strongest impressions that he loves her truly and deeply, that this relationship is going somewhere. Other times, he acts like a complete stranger who couldn't care less if he ever sees her again.
These two meet plenty of people--all ages, all socioeconomic classes, different races. But Clara becomes especially fond of a handful of children. Sparrow, a young boy, whom she is teaching to read. Beatty and Maria, two Jewish refugees from Jersey.
My thoughts: My first impression was YES PLEASE. It just sounds like it would be an amazing fit for me. Set during the Second World War. A Book about librarians making a difference. BOOKS changing lives. Books as a way to make connections.
But....this one, sadly, wasn't for me after all. I didn't enjoy the framework, not really. I almost wish we'd had Beatty's perspective in the past too. It was an odd switch, for me, to spend 95% of the book with Clara and Ruby's perspective--all very adult and adult-oriented. And then throw in the bits at the beginning and the end that are from Beatty's perspective seventy plus years later. The past flashbacks contain things that Beatty could not have actually known.
I felt that the novel was TOO busy. There are a million story threads. A story thread might sit vacant for a hundred plus pages only to suddenly make a reappearance. There is so much telling and not showing. And there were literally pages--sometimes whole chapters--that were just info dumps.
The characters. It makes sense that there would be personal tensions. But why did this story need SO many villains???? So many characters that are one-dimensional and "evil" "mean" "cruel" "vindictive" "callous" "despicable" for literally no reason whatsoever. Two people can disagree on something--even strongly--and not have to be downright EVIL.
For example, the EVIL man who is out to get Clara Button fired. I can see two librarians--especially at the time--having differing opinions. She wants to serve EVERYONE in the community. She wants the library to be a safe place regardless of age, gender, race/ethnicity, social class, education, etc. He doesn't. Libraries are for refined folks of a certain class or distinction. She wants the library to have ALL the books, and offer information freely. He wants the librarian to be a gatekeeper of morals and virtues. She believes that knowledge is power and that the more you know, the better informed you'll be when it comes to making decisions--big or small. He believes in withholding knowledge/information to maintain the status quo. They have completely different philosophies on HOW a library should operate. His ideas alone would make him a despicable character with modern readers. [I'm not arguing that]. But why did he have to be portrayed as extra-super-exceedingly evil on top of that????
The undercurrent of this one is that Ruby and Clara are fighting against the system, a system that wants to hold women down and deny them. A system that protects rapists and wife-beaters and blames women for daring to speak up. A system that thinks women shouldn't be allowed to read, encouraged to read.
So much of this one was just ugly. I may not have liked the super-villain-y-villains, but I didn't really like Clara and Ruby either. The writing style just felt hammer-like; let's hit readers over the head for the entire novel to make sure they understand that anyone who would limit access to books is evil.
© 2023 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews
What a shame you didn't enjoy this one. I heard an interview with the author and thought it sounded amazing but never got around to acquiring it.
Thanks for sharing your review with the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge!
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