Books with a literature theme are like two mirrors infinitely reflecting one another. Two books I read recently whose authors use other books to inform their work are The Last Bookshop in London: A novel of World War II by Madeline Martin, and Heaven and Hell by Jón Kalman Stefánsson. Whilst the novels each intersect with a number of books, the former is inspired largely by The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas, and the latter by John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. I’m sure that knowing these inspirations well would have enhanced my reading experience. I found myself wishing I had known them better.
In The Last Bookshop in London protagonist Grace Bennett moves to London during the blitz of World War II. Despite a timid character and not being much of a reader, by night Grace volunteers as a first-responder to bombed areas, and by day helps manage a bookshop. Her courage, and her enthusiasm for books, grow. This love for books not only helps Grace cope during the dark times, but also extends to others to whom Grace reads, either in bomb shelters or at the bookshop. Whilst there is a tiny romance element, the story is shaped largely by character and by action. I enjoyed this. Martin says, in a blog post on her website, that this choice was influenced by her love for the action adventure story, The Count of Monte Cristo. She uses the pacing, genre and audience appeal of The Count of Monte Cristo rather than its actual storyline for her work. And in The Last Bookshop in London that action works well, in part because of Martin’s well-researched, authentic setting.
Heaven and Hell by contrast is inspired more by the themes of Paradise Lost, as opposed to its pace and genre. Themes of life and death, heaven and hell, God and Satan – all woven into the theme of literature. Set in the extreme winter of Iceland, Heaven and Hell is essentially about a boy who befriends a man called Bardur. When Bardur dies the boy returns to its owner a book Bardur had been reading. That book is Paradise Lost. Despite weather conditions and his intense grief, the boy makes it to the town, to the house and to the man who is the original owner of the book. This man owns and lives with ‘400 books’, a paradise when compared to the trials and tribulations encountered during the tale. The story is a strange one, with many odd characters. The language, too, is noticeably different, perhaps because it is translated from the Icelandic. But I really enjoyed it. Both the long sentences full of commas, and the intriguing story. I found myself constantly trying to understand the literary symbolism.
Books about books about books… a great way to create thought-provoking reads of substance.