The Bookman’s Tale: A Novel of Obsession.
by Charlie Lovett
Penguin, paper, $16
This novel is based on the long-running controversy in the world of literature as to whether or not the man we know as William Shakespeare actually wrote the plays and sonnets popularly attributed to him. The story is of a young modern-day antiquarian bookseller, who on a trip to England discovers a book that, if proven to be genuine, would be evidence that Shakespeare did in fact write the works bearing his name.
Before he reveals to the world what he has found, however, the young man must prove that the evidence is not a forgery, and to establish its provenance he must trace the history of the book’s ownership from 1612 to the present. But solving the mystery would mean fame and fortune, and the young man throws himself enthusiastically into the search.
Difficulties arise when the young protagonist runs up against scholars with a vested interest in seeing him fail, those on the other side of the controversy. He also finds himself embroiled in an age-old feud between two English families who have been fighting over the evidence for several generations and definitely do not want the evidence exposed because of murder and mayhem in their history that would be revealed, to their shame.
Lovett lays the story out in a very interesting fashion. He divides it into four threads in different historical times; the early 1600s when Shakespeare would have written; subsequent history of the book in question to the present; the story of the young man himself, growing up in a difficult family and going to school to become an antiquarian book dealer; and finally, the present time in England as he searches for clues to the history of his exciting find. Since the author is unraveling each strand a little bit at a time, each chapter is a significant change in date, sometimes forward, sometimes back. Helpfully, the beginning of each chapter tells the dates of the particular thread that is about to be told, but the novel is definitely not a “page turner.” The reader has to maintain a high level of concentration in order to keep the four strands of the story and the various characters straight, and I had to go back several times to reread portions to be sure I didn’t miss anything. The four strands do come together neatly in the end, however, as a good mystery should, making the extra effort worthwhile.
In addition to the unraveling of a fascinating mystery, the reader will find much interesting history in The Bookman’s Tale. Lovett is very knowledgeable about the “who wrote Shakespeare” controversy and seems to have a very good acquaintance with the City of London and its history. He is also very much involved in the antiquarian book business and reveals its shabby practices as well as the positive side.
The Bookman’s Tale is particularly recommended for those who like a good, historically accurate mystery based around the business of old books.
Bruce Balas, Omena, Michigan
[Note: Bruce lived in London and taught at the American School for 25 years.]