It’s the late 1960s in the small town of Hometown, Victoria. People gather at the pub to watch Bellbird and Pick a Box, or drop in at the butcher shop of “Juicy” Collins for a gossip. Winds of change may be sweeping through places such as Melbourne and Sydney, but Hometown has yet to feel more than a ripple.
Tom is a young farmer who lives on the outskirts. We meet him on the day he discovers a note from Trudy, his wife of less than two years: “I’m leaving. Don’t know what to say. Love Trudy”.
The capricious Trudy comes and goes a few more times, abandoning her young son by another man to Tom’s care. That’s fine by Tom for he adores the boy, whose name is Peter. Peter adores Tom too and loves accompanying him on his daily rounds, milking cows, rounding up sheep, pruning fruit trees, feeding horses.
Several years later, when Trudy suddenly returns to take the boy away, Tom’s heart breaks all over again, and Peter is beyond distressed. But Trudy has found Jesus, and young Peter is going to find him too, like it or not.
In town one evening, feeling lonely but too dispirited to pop into the pub, Tom wanders the main street. He spies boxes of books and some bookshelves in a shopfront that has previously hosted a succession of doomed businesses. But a bookshop! Who would open a bookshop in Hometown? Even more curious, stuck in the window is a piece of paper with some words in “the queerest writing” he’d ever seen. On a day run into town for chops and other supplies, he questions the butcher about it, who tells him: “Lady from the continent, as they say.” One of Juicy’s other customers pipes up: “ ‘Jewish,’ ” she says, “as if the single word provided a catalogue of important information.”
Tom, who doesn’t even know that Jews don’t celebrate Christmas and has never heard of Auschwitz, isn’t privy to that particular catalogue. But he’s curious. And so when he receives a note from the lady herself, Hannah Babel, he is most surprised. The note is written on paper printed with her name and identifying her as a graduate of the Budapest Institute of Music and a private teacher of piano and flute. In it, she informs him that Juicy Collins has recommended him for handy work that she needs done in the shop. He knows nothing of music, and less of books, having read only one in his life, a romance novel that Trudy left behind. He finds himself unexpectedly a-flutter. He even briefly considers wearing a jacket and tie when he goes to meet her, before scolding himself: “She wasn’t going to ask him out to the pictures.” Also, she was 13 years older than him, and he was going to see her about a job. He tells himself to get a grip.
That turns out to be a hard call. Hannah Babel is an exotic creature in every sense. Flamboyant and stylish in a glamorous yellow sundress with plunging neckline and black high heels, warm, talkative and funny, Hannah is unlike anyone Tom has met. What’s more, by some miracle she thinks he’s beautiful too, and tells him so at that first meeting. He blushes. She gives him the job and from the start there’s a mutual fascination.
That Tom has never heard of the concentration camps is, for Hannah, a kind of relief. There are stories that she can never forget but also does not wish to be reminded of. She regales him with amusing tales of her colourful family. Yet she keeps the details of their fate to one side of a “thick black line” that she won’t cross. This is a relief to Tom: “He didn’t know what to do with mass murder.”
That he has only read the one book in his life, meanwhile, doesn’t bother Hannah. She delights in introducing him to Dickens and Dostoyevsky and even “your Thomas Keneally”. (“Can’t say I’ve heard of him,” Tom confesses.) While reading Great Expectations, he asks Hannah if she thinks Miss Havisham mad. Hannah observes that Miss Havisham “lives for the passion of disappointment”. There’s a clue there, but Tom doesn’t get it: “I think you’ve lost me,” he replies.
Tom, whose own sisters feel that he lacks “a type of male insistence”, is a kind of Australian beta male: nurturing and kind but inarticulate and unworldly. Hannah is as much an opposite to Tom as one person can be to another, and yet they spark; Robert Hillman’s gift is to make this entirely believable. Hannah is a great character, reminiscent in some regards of the theatrical Vera Wasowski, whose autobiography Hillman co-authored. Trudy, on the other hand, feels like little more than a plot device, a bundle of female unpredictability, emotion and clichés.
Yet it’s not hard to forgive a novel such as this its flaws, so minor compared with its strengths. Hillman’s ability to conjure up the rhythms and texture of rural life is a source of joy. His reproduction of the Australian vernacular is pitch-perfect, and often hilarious. There’s the local marriage celebrant who, asked to read a poem by Sappho, double-checks: “Just the one name?”
Hillman also brings alive the many animal characters who populate the farm as well, such as Tom’s dog Beau: made to stay until called, Beau waits on the verandah “in an agony of obedience”. The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted is rarely laugh-aloud funny, but it is often smile-to-yourself funny.
It balances these moments well with its excursions into darker territory, and the Holocaust is about as dark as territory comes. But there is also the controlling and sadistic world of the Jesus Camp in which Trudy virtually incarcerates young Peter. Totalitarianism comes in many guises.
This is a novel about the importance of freedom as well as the redemptive qualities of love – and how facing up to the past can be the key to both freedom and love. CG
Text, 288pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 31, 2018 as "Robert Hillman, The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted".
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