The Bookman’s Tale: A novel of obsession
Keeping Peter Byerly out of a bookshop, or a library, is no easy task. Given his problems with social anxiety, he’d rather be at home solving a crossword puzzle alongside a cup of tea, but his profession as an antiquarian bookseller propels him in and out of bookshops, libraries, and, as one might guess, a good deal of mischief. Upon entering a new bookshop Byerly sniffs each shop’s air of cloth, dust, and leather, operating much like a wine enthusiast inhaling a pinot grigio’s nutty bouquet, though in his case he recalls an emotional jolt from each book, not grapes.
The Hay-on-Wye bookshop is across the ocean from Ridgefield, N.C., his home and where his wife, a Welshwoman, Amanda, lies buried in the red clay. The couple met as students at Ridgefield University, where Byerly worked in the academic library. An experience with a wounded book, the Royal Academy catalog, and a peek at the Conservation Room focused his calling and transformed his life: “He felt like an addict who has just discovered an endless supply of the perfect drug.”
Back at the bookshop, a Victorian-era painting bearing eerie resemblance to Amanda falls out of a study of Shakespeare forgeries. As Byerly copes with depression, anxiety, and loss from Amanda’s recent death, solving the mystery of the image’s origins gives him a focus for his energy. He is drawn across Wales to London where he becomes embroiled in answering the age-old academic question of who really authored Shakespeare’s plays?
With its universal themes of loss and isolation readers can easily identify with Byerly as he embarks upon his adventure. Keeping up with the storylines poses a small issue, as readers bounce between Byerly and Amanda in 1983 and “currently” in 1995. The storyline also concerns a copy of “Pandosto,” a 1588 work of prose by English author Robert Greene and the source for Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.”
Lovett’s knack for dialogue, historic details, social context, and personages from the era lend a hearty “plague and tavern” atmosphere to the sixteenth century portions. The work is undoubtedly a pleasurable summer mystery for the bookish.
— Rebecca Tolley-Stokes