A library exists on an Underground station. It contributes to a whole small society that hunkers down there, with three tier bunks, a hairdresser and a theatre. It exists in the shadow of the Bethnal green Tube Station disaster, which also features in this book.
Such a library did exist though the one Kate Thompson has given us is bigger and more like an overground library in terms of opening times, the people who worked there and who visited, and the activities offered.
Thompson has been thorough in her research and much of this was conducted during the Covid-19 pandemic. Each chapter is headed with a quote from a librarian about the value of books and libraries. The chapter reflects what was in the quote – even having protagonist Clara Button painting her only decent pair of shoes black when she goes for an important conversation with her boss. Like the lady in the quote, she finds that her shoes drip all over the floor.
This text again poses the question about how much should we and can we fictionalise what has actually happened.
Novelists are anyway professional liars who tell an awful lot of truth. Thompson does this here and can be forgiven for bending the facts a little. She captures the emotional essence of a young widow who has lost her husband in a tragic way, of the young girl who lost her sister in that terrible night in Bethnal Green and of a young man who has a secret he cannot share easily with his fiancée.
At times the characters speak rather too rationally or philosophically for them to be completely convincing.
Nevertheless, this is a very satisfying read. Thompson also treats us to insights into her research at the end of the novel.
It is also bang up to date: the opening and closing scenes are set in 2021, with one of the main characters revisiting the site of the little library. She draws parallels between the restrictions imposed because of Covid and those imposed because of World War II. In both cases books offer an escape.