5 stars “Do you see how things can turn out? Do you see that that the world is big enough to make certain things possible? That thirty-six years ago the German Student Union could hold a rally in Opernplatz, Berlin, and burn twenty-five thousand books, many written by Jews, the students rejoicing in their festival of loathing, and now this, in Hometown. Hannah’s bookshop of the broken hearted, a thing of beauty.”
The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted is a novel by award-winning Australian author, Robert Hillman. It was a new business that had opened on Ben Chifley Square in Hometown, Victoria, in the spring of 1969. The sign suspended from the awning said Hannah’s Bookshop, but in her own mind, Hannah Babel thought of it as The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, which is what was written on the small, hand-lettered Hebrew sign in the window.
When Auschwitz and war’s aftermath took from her two husbands and her only son, a broken heart was Hannah’s lot. Leaving Budapest at least allowed her to avoid the reminders. It was something that farmer Tom saw fleetingly in her eyes when he came to help out with welding and shelving. Tom was almost an accidental farmer: he’d inherited his farm near Hometown from his bachelor Uncle Frank, having previously worked for the Tramways as a mechanic, welder and panel beater.
But while farming wasn’t in his blood, he did well at it, caring more for his own sheep and fruit trees than his neighbours did theirs. Tom’s young wife, Trudy was a city girl who felt isolated and bored on the farm. It broke Tom’s heart the first time she left him, less than two years into their marriage. It wasn’t quite the same the second time she went; she’d found Jesus and left three-year-old Peter in Tom’s care. When she returned to take Peter away to the Pastor’s Church of Jesus Mercy, though, Tom wondered if the pain in his heart could get any worse.
But now, here was Hannah. Older than him, and obviously a bit mad (a bookshop, in Hometown?), but so bright and cheerful; there was no denying the attraction. Was this a chance at happiness? Was that even possible while Peter was away against his will? Would Hannah ever reveal the depth of her own heart’s ache?
Hillman tells his story through three narrative strands: Tom and Peter both relate events during the 1960s, while Hannah’s is a tale much-told, of the Jewish persecution during the war. He easily captures the era: popular songs and their singers; politics and current events; books, authors and publications; social attitudes like xenophobia; staid appetites and boring food choices all firmly cement this tale in the mid- to late sixties.
Hillman populates his novel with a marvellous cast of characters, both major and minor: the socially awkward but utterly reliable farmer Tom; the flirty butcher, Juicy Collins; weak and shallow Trudy (who eventually grows a spine); the well-organised CWA ladies; the laconic farmers; the pop-idol-obsessed teens; and the newcomer, Hannah, determined to get the town reading; each is believable and easy to imagine in a small Victorian country town. It’s a community ready with criticism, opinions and, when it matters most, support and caring, in equal measure.
This is a story with love and laughter, guilt and grief, cruelty and kindness. Several characters display amazing resilience. All this is wrapped in beautiful descriptive prose. Text Publishing offers a Great Read Guaranteed or your money back, but this is such a wonderful, moving read that it is unlikely they’ll need to give many refunds.