Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 5, 2013

The Bookman’s Tale (2013), by Charlie Lovett

The Bookman's TaleMy father’s going to love this novel.  Perfect for people who love books and literature, The Bookman’s Tale, A Novel of Obsession is just the kind of story he enjoys: a cleverly constructed mystery that respects the reader’s intelligence.

At Wikipedia the Shakespearean authorship question is a long page with a zillion references – but apart from a few diehard conspiracy theorists, the issue appears to have been resolved in favour of William Shakespeare of Stratford.  Millions of tourists who’ve made the pilgrimage to Shakespeare’s birthplace (as I have)  must be pleased about this because trekking around to the birthplaces of all the pretenders would be rather tiresome, eh?  Nevertheless Charlie Lovett has created a delicious mystery out of the discovery of a 16th century work called Pandosto  which is thought to be the inspiration for the plot of A Winter’s Tale.  Has antiquarian bookseller Peter Byerly discovered the answer to the mystery of who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays?

The novel is also an inspiring story of love and loss and starting again… Peter is mourning the sudden death of his lovely wife Amanda: he is an introvert with a social anxiety disorder and it’s not easy for him to form relationships with anyone, much less fall in love.   So the story, told in three different time periods, reveals his devastation and stumbling efforts to reintegrate into the world; the backstory of his brief, joyful and unexpected life with Amanda; and the Shakespearean past that Peter is trying to unravel.  The catalyst for this quest is Peter’s hesitant trip to Hay-on-Wye where within the pages of a book he discovers what appears to be a Victorian-era picture of Amanda.  Half-heartedly following the advice of his therapist to stop being a recluse, he sets off to solve the mysterious provenance of this enigmatic watercolour – and in the process comes across what he thinks is the original Pandosto with annotations by Shakespeare himself – the book that could definitively prove Shakespearean authorship.  If it’s authentic, this Pandosto would be the holy grail of book collectors, but of course, as an antiquarian Peter knows that there are forgers aplenty.

The characterisation in The Bookman’s Tale is excellent.  Shy, reclusive Peter with his scholarly interest in books is a perfect match for the more lively Amanda, admittedly somewhat idealised but that’s consistent with her role as guardian angel.  Liz, the water-colour expert who might eventually turn out to be a love-interest for Peter is funny, smart and has a talent for sarcastic one-liners:

‘Wonderful’, said Liz.  ‘Now we’re trapped in a crypt with a dead body we have no way of re-entombing.  I’m feeling more comfortable all the time.’  (p.293)

But although these three central characters are engaging, it’s the panoply of minor characters that really makes this novel sparkle.  From the scholarly geeks who specialise in book restoration and curating university and museum collections to the Shakespearean forgers and the neighbours with a centuries-old feud, The Bookman’s Tale captures eccentricity, roguery, and the quiet heroism of booksellers who – whatever their motives – preserve the antique books that are part of our literary heritage.

But it’s not all plain sailing for our hero because the world of books is, inevitably, also subject to greed.  Where vast amounts of money and people’s reputations are involved, danger lurks.   As A.S. Byatt showed in her delicious novel Possession, collecting items of our literary heritage makes some people very possessive indeed.  In The Bookman’s Tale obsession leads to an exciting climax – not quite nail-biting, because after all, there’s the prospect of a happy ending for Peter and Liz, but the plotting is well done and the tension maintained while the characters extricate themselves from grave peril.

This book is entertaining reading for booklovers of all kinds.  Maybe a stocking filler this Christmas?

Author: Charlie Lovett
Title: The Bookman’s Tale, a novel of obsession
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2013
ISBN: 9781922079336
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing.

Fishpond: The Bookman’s Tale: A Novel of Obsession


  1. Definitely going on my TBR list! I love all of the mystery around Shakespeare, and I admire those who lovingly and painstakingly restore books, plus I love a well written story with great minor characters.


  2. This has been sitting my coffee table for a month. I really have to dig into this one.


  3. It’s a good one as ‘light relief’ from other more demanding reading that needs to be read in the daytime. I’m on the home run with Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and I’m enjoying it, but it’s not a book to drift off to sleep with at the end of the day.


    • I read the Magic Mountain years ago. I think I’d have more of an appreciation and understanding for it now that I’m older. The satire would make more sense now. Some books need to be read with a certain amount of ‘experience’ under your belt.


      • Yes, I agree. I think I ‘misread’ quite a few books when I was younger, and most of them are on my list to reread when I get time. But I read almost no German Lit when I was younger, so this is my first time with TMM. (I read Buddenbrooks a year or so ago). I have literally pages and pages of notes that I’ve made as I go along with TMM – but at this stage I have no idea how I will write it up here on the blog LOL…


  4. I love books about books, literary quests and book lovers, book shops, libraries…I’m a desperate case of bookishness.

    Thanks for bringing this one to my attention.


    • Can you get it in French? Or would you read it in English?


      • It’s not available in French. Anyway, I’d rather read Anglophone books in English if it’s not too complicated.


        • Yes, that’s what I’d like to be able to do with books written in French. The problem is, how do you know before you get started? I mean, there are books that I read as an English speaker that are challenging to read, not because the vocabulary is esoteric but because of the way the book is structured, or irony, or symbolism, or complex sentences in a style I’m not used to. I like books like this, but there’s no way I could manage something similar in another language. On the other hand I used to read Agatha Christie in Indonesian to practise my skills but I didn’t find them satisfying as books. The hard part is finding books that have uncomplicated language that are still satisfying as books and not an insult to the intelligence.


          • I started with classics from the 19thC : no exoticism in the structure, literary language, which means closer to French, no slang. Another advantage: these books are in the public domain, I can have them in French and in English and I can switch back to French if I’m tired of reading in a foreign language. It happens less and less.

            Why don’t you try Maupassant? He’s the master of short stories, it’s maybe less discouraging. He doesn’t write long sentences and endless descriptions like Balzac or Zola.

            For a contemporary writer, try Philippe Djian. Short sentences, not a lot of slang and short books. Plus, he’s good.


            • I will, Maupassant sounds like the way to go. But I must finish The Zola Project first (in English). Thanks, Emma:)


  5. this sounds like a good book for a cold winter’s evening.


    • Hello Karen, welcome!
      I agree, this is the kind of book that would be perfect for when you’re holed up inside away from bad weather.


  6. Don’t people get obsessive about books. I don’t think I could devote much time to the Shakespeare Authorship question even if I had it. It all seems rather arcane to me. Nevertheless, this sounds like a great read and if it gives some insight into the minds of those who really DO care, then that’s a bonus.


    • Hi Tom, no it’s not a field of scholarship that appeals to me either, though I suppose if I were a collector I’d want to be sure that my collection couldn’t suddenly lose half its value because someone had proved that somebody else wrote half the plays….


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