by Stephanie Butland
“I don’t like people much. Well, some are okay. But not enough to make it a given.”
When the misanthropic Loveday Cardew discovers a tatty copy of Grinning Jack by Liverpool poet Brian Patten carelessly dropped on the ground, she cannot foresee that her actions to reunite it with its negligent owner will provoke a sequence of disruptive events in her carefully regulated life.
I wasn’t at all sure that Lost For Words by Stephanie Butland was going to be my sort of book. The promotional write-up was tempting, describing it as having the “emotional intensity of The Shock of the Fall and all the charm of The Little Paris Bookshop and 84, Charing Cross Road” – the latter being a great favourite of mine – but it was categorized as chick-lit and romance on Goodreads, which are probably my two least liked genres (i.e. I wouldn’t normally bother to read the blurb after making such a discovery). Nevertheless, something compelled me to give it a shot, and it was worth the effort.
The author lives by the sea in Northumberland, where she writes in a studio at the bottom of her garden. She once worked as a bookseller, but now trains people to think creatively, and is an occasional performance poet – a topic that plays a major role in this novel.
Lost For Words is a fictional book emporium in the historic city of York, owned by Archie, an endearing, loquacious, well-upholstered rascal who keeps a paternal but discreet watch over Loveday, his reticent but dedicated assistant. She has worked for him since being in her teens (she’s in her mid to late twenties when the story begins) and is perfectly content to continue doing so indefinitely.
Loveday may show every outward sign of being a sulky, uncommunicative emo, but she’s actually quite a compassionate character, it’s simply that she prefers books to people. This is unsurprising once you learn that her life has been difficult, and she has a past she would rather forget. I felt an instant warmth for her because (like me) one of her special books is A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which is partly set in her home town of Whitby. Byatt’s famous work is of course a romantic novel, but I somewhat ridiculously prefer to think of it as pure literary fiction.
Butland’s book isn’t the sentimental mush I half expected it to be – nor is it a particularly cosy read – it’s more a warm at heart mystery novel which sneaks domestic violence, stalking, trauma and mental health issues in through the back of the bookstore.
While there’s plenty here to keep us book fetishists happy (lots of literary name-dropping, for instance), there is also a romance of sorts, as well as humour, remorse, love and shelves full of second-hand volumes.
The principal characters’ poetry is heartfelt but not terribly good, although I don’t think it was meant to be. Butland’s novel is, however, an ideal read for the tome-weary bibliophile looking for something undemanding but intelligent to fill a relaxing evening.
Many thanks to Bonnier Zaffre for providing an advance review copy of this title.