Imagine an England without internet or mobile phones, where people leave their doors unlocked and neighbours help each other; a time when affairs are common, and fast-spreading, malicious gossip can ruin lives.
The Librarian is set in the 1950s, in a small English town called East Mole. 24-year-old Sylvia Blackwell takes a post at the local children’s library, and moves to a rickety, rented cottage in the area.
Well intentioned Sylvia realises the library is avoided by local children (and with ‘moral’ titles like ‘The Joys of Obedience’ it’s easy to see why). She starts a campaign to put reading at the heart of the community, bringing in newer novels and approaching the local school and Women’s Institute for support.
If the plot so far sounds slightly twee, don’t panic. Sylvia has fallen into a viper’s nest of local politics and, some heart-warming moments aside (her tutoring helps a local girl to pass exams), she’s soon surrounded by conflict.
Mr Booth, Sylvia’s unpleasant, philandering boss and Mr Collins, the head of the library committee, are set against change. When one of Sylvia’s regular young clients is accused of stealing a (very explicit) book from the adult library, it looks as though the new children’s librarian may be forced out of town.
To make matters worse, Sylvia makes some problematic choices and launches an affair with Dr Hugh Bell, an older, married man with a precocious young child.
Attitudes in the 1950s
The Librarian is a quick and easy read, which I finished within a couple of days. I enjoyed some characters, such as the indomitable Miss Crake and Sylvia’s landlady, Mrs Bird.
Some of the children who learn to use the library such as Sam, a young prodigy, and Lizzie, Mrs Bird’s granddaughter, are very likeable and give an insight into the 1950s education system and social divides. The more I read, the more I wanted to see them both succeed against the odds.
I also love that Sylvia realises some people aren’t malicious, just dealing with their own problems and insecurities. Without giving away too many spoilers, the last few pages shoehorn in an uplifting ending.
Yet, certain sections of The Librarian leave me cringing – not because they’re poorly written but because the author does an excellent job of conveying attitudes in the 1950s.
For example, I don’t understand what Sylvia sees in Dr Bell that encourages her to start a relationship (it’s a sudden change in behaviour for her). His casually misogynistic comments after they’d been together made my skin crawl.
The husband of library-volunteer-Dee is even worse. He’s – ugh – a horrific person and a danger to society yet no one takes action against him in the course of the book.
Again, I realise the behaviour here doesn’t reflect the author’s view – she’s exhibiting the time in which the story is set – but they’re points that should be kept in mind by anyone looking for a ‘cosy’ read.
Verdict: I’m glad I picked up The Librarian. There are plenty of period details and the book’s packed with references to classic children’s literature (remember Tom’s Midnight Garden and I Capture the Castle, anyone?). Though some of Sylvia’s choices seem bizarre I enjoyed the story and would love a follow up book on the fascinating life of Miss Crake.