The Little Paris Bookshop is a book about books. But more than that, it is a book about all the things that books contain within and the role they play in life. The protaganist in Nina George‘s novel, Jean Perdu owns his Literary Apothecary, a book barge where he prescribes literature to ‘treat feelings that are not recognised as emotions and never diagnosed by doctors.’ His a bookseller who is less focused on selling books, and more on changing lives, even refusing to let customers walk away with books that he doesn’t think will benefit them, and allowing children to be enrapt in books read on board without purchasing even a leaf. Books are everything, as he tells one woman. ‘With all due respect, what you read is more important in the long term than the man you marry, ma chère Madame.’
However, knowing books inside out and believing that they are ‘capable of changing the world and toppling tyrants’ and represent ‘freedom on the wings of a paper’ does not mean that Perdu can always self medicate. A broken heart and painful memories leaves him floundering, and he asks ‘Is there really no book that could teach me to play the song of life?’
But it is words which change his life. The words written in a letter by Mamon, his lover, who left twenty one years ago, and the words which his new romance Catherine loves.
The feelings stirred up by his new love interest, and the experience of finally reading the letter Mamon sent him so many years ago, he is prompted to embark on a journey along the rivers to old memories and new places. It’s a journey which awakens the soul, the experience of being out of the city triggering ‘hyper intensive perceptions’ and rekindles old memories.
Love is everything. Words are everything. And the links between the literary experience and Perdu’s life are evident. He states at the beginning of the novel “Books are like people, and people are like books, I’ll tell you how I go about it. I ask myself: Is he or she the main character in his or her life? What is her motive? Or is she a secondary character in her own tale? Is she in the process of editing herself out of her story because her husband, her career, her children or her job are consuming her entire text?” and there’s a sense that for many years this is what he has been doing.
Jean Perdu’s life is overwhelmed by his history, and as sensitive as he is to literature, it sometimes blinds him to reality. On one sail he sits with his notebook open and ‘stared out of the window without noticing how the sky was ablaze with every colour from red to orange. Thinking felt like wading through treacle.’ He is travelling with Max, a young author and one of the eclectic people who lives in the same apartment block, and the charming Salvatore Cuneo, in a bizarre three man and a boat situation which is wholly more sublime than the image conjured.
Cooking also features heavily, the sensuality of food triggering the same pleasure synapses as literature for the characters. ‘Books were my friends,’ said Catherine, and cooled her cheek, which was red from the heat of cooking, on her wineglass. ‘I think I learned all my feelings from books. In them I loved and laughed and found out more than in my whole non-reading life.’
Through tender prose and deeply impressionistic description George creates a romantic, sensuous and emotional read which traverses the many brilliant and brittle fragments of life. Untethering himself from his past and habit (‘Habit is a vain and treacherous goddess. She lets nothing disrupt her rule. She smothers one desire after another: the desire to travel, the desire for a better job or a new love. She stops us from living as we would like, because habit prevents us from asking ourselves whether we continue to enjoy doing what we do.’) he embarks on a journey of freedom and change, settling and finding a place of stillness as a result. This is a novel that allows the soul and mind to roam free, before coming to rest in its own happy space.
The Little Paris Bookshop was first published in German as Das Lavendelzimmer and is Nina George’s 26th novel.