Title: The Grandest Bookshop in the World
Author: Amelia Mellor
Genre: Historical Fiction, Magical Realism
Publisher: Affirm Press
Published: 29th September 2020
Synopsis: Pearl and Vally Cole live in a bookshop. And not just any bookshop. In 1893, Cole’s Book Arcade in Melbourne is the grandest bookshop in the world, brimming with every curiosity imaginable. Each day brings fresh delights for the siblings: voice-changing sweets, talking parrots, a new story written just for them by their eccentric father.
When Pearl and Vally learn that Pa has risked the Arcade – and himself – in a shocking deal with the mysterious Obscurosmith, the siblings hatch a plan. Soon they are swept into a dangerous game with impossibly high stakes: defeat seven challenges by the stroke of midnight and both the Arcade and their father will be restored. But if they fail Pearl and Vally won’t just lose Pa – they’ll forget that he and the Arcade ever existed.
Pearl is curious, but cautious when a strange man enters Cole’s Book arcade, a magical place filled with books, animals, lollies, and all manner of diverse and fantastic people and things. All seems normal though, until Pearl and her brother Vally discover that Pa has risked his life and the Arcade in a deal with the Obscurosmith – the man Pearl meets at the beginning of the novel. To save their home, the Arcade and Pa, Pearl and Vally embark on a game – seven challenges to defeat by midnight – but is the Obscurosmith telling the truth? Just how much can Pearl and Vally trust him, and what is the deal their father has struck with him? Once Pearl and Vally start the game, there is no turning back, and they must use all their wits and cleverness to defeat this relentless enemy, determined to claim everything he desires from them.
The Grandest Bookshop in the World centres on the real Coles Book Arcade and the family that lived there in 1893, so Pearl and Vally did exist – but their fictional selves drive this story, along with the history of the Arcade, and the social history it comments on throughout the novel, touching on issues of racism, sexism, feminism and disability to create a realistic world with just that perfect touch of magic and magical realism to make the adventures Vally and Pearl have exceptionally exciting, a little bit scary but cleverly rendered with word puzzles scattered throughout as the siblings strive to save their home. The combination creates a world that is realistic and ideal, and as Amelia notes in her author’s note at the back, Pa, or E.W. Cole, whilst he was forward thinking in many ways, still benefited and at times contributed to some aspects of the way society worked at the time and can be seen as a complex character and person. Yet through the eyes of his children, he is a hero, and they love him so much, they are willing to put everything on the line to save him.
The challenges and game take place in real time in the novel – so Pearl and Vally do contend with familial interruptions as they try to keep it a secret, and ensure the deal they made is adhered to. There is a beauty in this novel – it makes one want to travel back in time to the 1890s to experience Cole’s Book Arcade as it celebrates everything wondrous about words and books, and everything in between. Its message is also about the role that words and storytelling play in our lives and how they make us who we are. This celebration of words explores what it is like when these words are under threat, and how people react and adjust, and work to keep the words alive.
This is a book that captures the imagination, and takes the reader on a diverse and magical journey around a bookstore that many readers would love to be able to visit. The mystery and magic come together, and work alongside logic and patterns to create the puzzles and game that Vally and Pearl are playing. Trickery abounds but Pearl and Vally must find a way to outsmart the tricks. The magic is within the Arcade but also within the characters and history, and this is what makes this a rather exceptional book and one that many will adore.
A wonderful middle grade historical fiction with a touch of magical realism.