Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 17, 2022

The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted (2018), by Robert Hillman

The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted is an uplifting novel that raises difficult questions.  Its message is that ‘love conquers all’ but it also depicts the difficulty of loving people who are damaged by horror, trauma and abuse.  Is it possible to heal?

The novel also asks ‘when should a vow be broken?’

Hannah’s vow.  What Tom didn’t say, didn’t think of saying, but believed, was that all vows could go to the devil.  That’s what could be teased out, picked out from the pain in his heart.  All vows could go to the devil, these stones set up as boundaries that endured the weather and the change of seasons and would not alter when all around them was altering each day; everything in the thriving world changing, but the stones unaltered. (p.247)

(You can see how beautifully Hillman writes from the anguish in that passage.)

When Tom, a lonely, reticent farmer abandoned by his first wife Trudy, meets Hannah, she is a damaged person.  They are in country Victoria, in 1969, and Hannah has made her way to the small town of Hometown from the chaos of postwar Hungary, (first the Germans, then the Soviets, and she’s Jewish).  She brings with her the trauma of Auschwitz: her husband Leon was murdered there and so was her little boy Michael.  She survived until liberation by the Soviets, and made her way back to Hungary, where she married Stefan, deranged by his losses.  And when she lost him too, she made a vow to protect her grieving heart, that she would not love again.

Tom is grieving too, because when she left him, Trudy took Peter with her, her son by another man.  She takes the boy to a religious cult called Jesus Camp, where the pastor dishes out Old Testament punishments with the enthusiastic support of his flock.  There are no sentimental scenes in this novel but Tom loved Peter as if he were his own, and the boy loved him in return. But Tom had no legal right even to contest custody and that was that.

(Things are different now.  Reforms to family law mean that what’s best for the child is paramount in custody matters, and the birth mother and her husband or de facto partner are regarded in law as the child’s parents, even if they have no genetic connection to the child. But those reforms and subsequent amendments did not begin until the change of government in 1972.  The timing of this novel has been carefully chosen to reflect the historical situation regarding custody arrangements.)

So when Hannah and Tom find moments of joy together, and they marry, Peter is far away.  Out of sight, but not out of Tom’s mind.  Hannah’s ghosts are never far away either, though she makes a valiant effort to heal herself.

When Peter runs away from Jesus Camp, he makes an heroic journey by rail and foot to the farm. But Hannah does not make him welcome for the brief time that he is there.  Tom, painfully aware that he has no legal right to the child, rings Trudy and the child is returned to Jesus Camp where the punishments become thrashings.  Tom doesn’t know about this, because Peter has said nothing about it. But he is also hamstrung by his love for Hannah, who will not have the child in the house.  If the boy comes, then she will go.

The bookshop of the title is the means by which this couple meet, and is also the setting for a resolution of the dilemma.  The backstory reveals Hannah’s crazy plan for a bookshop in Hometown (where nobody reads books, not even Tom) and how Tom crafts beautiful shelves from restored timber for the store.  In the process, he revives reading from his boyhood days, beginning with a memory of being read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  (Also a novel of willingness to change and of healing.)  This bookshop, with a change of site even more unlikely to succeed, is a symbol of the way small towns can reinvent themselves as tourism destinations.

The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted is not a sentimental story or another 84 Charing Cross.  There are some very dark moments, and the novel doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of life.  But on the day bookshop opens, fair goers from the Shire Ferret Show wandered across to Hannah’s Bookshop in a mood to spend something on literature, perhaps.

Books were sold: Enid Blyton more than most; a number of Noddy’s, Famous Fives, Secret Sevens.

Most of the customers were women.  Some would take a book from the shelves and turn it about with a savouring expression.  Others held the books a little anxiously, as if picking up a volume might count as a commitment to purchase.

Bunty George who, like Tom, managed her farm single-handedly on what the early settlers from Yorkshire called ‘the big moors’ west of the town, had no such scruples; she went through the Agatha Christie titles like a chaff-cutter and brought a bale of books to the counter.  (p.124)

Like a chaff-cutter! A bale of books!

At the end of the first day’s trading, Hannah has sold 37 books.  To break even, she needs to sell 50 each day, which even she realises is most unlikely.

It didn’t matter.  Happiness ran in her arteries and veins and reached every part of her body and being.

Do you see how things can turn out?  Do you see that the world is big enough to make certain things possible?  That thirty-six years ago the German Student Union could hold a rally in Opernplatz, Berlin, and burn twenty-five thousand books, many written by Jews, the students rejoicing in their festival of loathing, and now this, in Hometown.  Hannah’s bookshop of the broken hearted, a thing of beauty. (p.126)

It has been my privilege to know a number of Holocaust survivors who have made a new life here in Australia.  I have also taught too many children whose lives have been brutal.  And like most of us, I’ve known many whose relationships have failed in tears and recriminations, and sometimes in violence.  All around us there are people whose story we may not know, whose behaviour may seem bizarre because we can’t imagine what they’ve endured.  What is uplifting about The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted is its assertion that acceptance and generosity of spirit can help.

I have previously reviewed Hillman’s biography of Gurrumul, His Life and Music, and (before I started this blog) I had also read The Rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif, (2008 written in collaboration with Najaf Mazari).  Hillman’s memoir The Boy in the Green Suit: An Innocent Abroad in the Middle East won the National Biography Award in 2005. You can find out more about him, at his website.

Author: Robert Hillman
Title: The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2018
Book design by Text
ISBN: 9781925603439, pbk., 275 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased at Blarney Books Port Fairy, $29.99



  1. Oh I’m so glad to see someone loved this book too. I read it a few years ago and thought I had discovered a hidden gem in Hillman all by myself :-D
    I have his latest novel, The Bride of Almond Tree on my TBR…


    • I’m certainly going to be reading more of his fiction!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds an important story but the subject is a tough one to read about. So much grief and trauma in our big world.


    • Yes, but this author has got the balance right. The overall tone is uplifting.


      • It’s always positive when they do that. I’m glad you enjoyed it. 😊


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