Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, by American author Robin Sloan, is good fun. It reminded me straight away of The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay which I read back in 2008. (See my review). That was also about a bizarre bookshop, but was a fable with a magical-realist twist and many an allusion to Moby Dick. Sloan’s novel is much more contemporary…
Someone on GoodReads called Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore a ‘popcorn novel’ – I don’t know if that’s a recognised genre or her own expression, but I think I know what she means. The book is a plot driven story with some cliff-hanging moments and lots of snappy dialogue. It would make a terrific film, although what might be lost is the narrator’s wry commentary. Here he is meeting the entrancing Kat:
It’s a girl. She’s leaning halfway into the store, and she’s looking at me, and she;s saying, ‘Are you open?’
Why yes, girl, with chestnut hair cropped to your chin and a red T-shirt with the word BAM printed in mustard yellow – yes, as a matter of fact, we are.
‘Absolutely, ‘ I say. You can come in. We’re always open.’
‘I was just waiting for the bus and my phone buzzed – I think I have a coupon?’
She walks straight up to the front desk, pushes her phone out towards me, and there, on the little screen, is my Google ad. The hyper-targeted local campaign – I’d forgotten about it, but it’s still running, and it found someone. The digital coupon I designed is right there, peeking out of her scratched-up smartphone. Her nails are shiny.
‘Yes!’ I say. ‘That’s a great coupon. The best!’ I’m talking too loud. She’s going to turn around and leave. Google’s astonishing algorithms have delivered me a supercute girl, and I have no idea what to do with her. She swivels her head to take in the store. She looks dubious. (p. 51)
As well she might. Mr Penumbra’s is no ordinary San Francisco second-hand bookstore. Unemployed 26-year old Clay Jannon stumbled into it when searching for a job, and Mr Penumbra took him on because the book he loves best is a fantasy series called The Dragon-Song Chronicles. The front half of the shop sells ordinary books to the very few customers who venture into over the threshold. But it’s the section in the rear, where the waybacklist is kept that’s a little alarming:
The shelves were packed close together, and it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest – not a friendly Californian forest either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach. There were ladders that clung to the shelves and rolled side-to-side. Usually those seem charming, but here, stretching up into the gloom, they were ominous. They whispered rumours of accidents in the dark. (p. 8)
The cyber-world meets the book-world in this novel in an intriguing quest for a secret that goes back to the days of Gutenberg. It’s a kind of thinking person’s Da Vinci Code for booklovers: there is a quasi-religious secret society with a charismatic leader, an enigmatic code, and a shadow-world complete with dungeon-like hidey-hole reached by one of those walls that you push to reveal the hidden passageway. But these elements of the classic adventure novel intersect with the modern world of cyber technology and the astonishing power of Google. Along the way Sloan explores love and friendship in the digital age, the quest for meaningful work in the 21st century, and the enduring value of great books, whatever form they come in.
It’s a page-turning romp that will appeal to armchair adventurers with a sense of humour.
The Australian edition has a terrific cover design by W.H. Chong.
Author: Robin Sloan
Title: Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore
Publisher: Text Publishing 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text.