The Left-handed Booksellers of London
by Garth Nix,
At one point in Garth Nix’s novel — Chapter Six in fact — we join two of the protagonists as they enter The New Bookshop premises somewhere off London’s Curzon Street. (Despite its name it only sells old books.) Susan spots Shakespeare, Scott, Austen, Brontë, Blake and T E Lawrence among the titles, then some childhood favourites:
“There was John Masefield’s The Box of Delights; and the C S Lewis Narnia books; and Patricia Lynch’s The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey; The Winter of Enchantment by Victoria Walker; Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken…”
And so it goes on, with books published before 1983 by Rosemary Sutcliff, Diana Wynne Jones, Alan Garner, and Edith Nesbit. As a roll call of her childhood reading it’s impressive; as books they’re indicative of the undercurrents swirling around in this enchanting thriller, and when I say enchanting I mean full-on fizzing and popping magic.
It’s the first day of May 1983 and Susan Arkshaw has just turned 18. Her name, by the way, must be a nod towards Susan Pevensie who, we’re told in The Last Battle from the Chronicles of Narnia, is
interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.
But Susan Arkshaw, an only child in a one-parent family, is in late punk mode and has but two concerns — to fill in the months before art college by doing casual work in London; and to find out who her father is or was since her mother is singularly unforthcoming. On decamping from a cottage outside Bath to digs in the capital, however, she finds that the process of discovering her unknown parent is more fraught with danger and unexpected experiences than she could ever imagine.
This is a jolly romp, not at all demanding for the reader unless they choose to have demands put on them. As the author’s afterword (before the customary acknowledgements) makes clear, this novel is somewhat personal in that it reflects his own experiences in England in 1983 and later, when he was only a couple of years older than his main protagonist. But this fiction reveals a timeline for an alternative England, one where the magical and chthonic worlds largely function beneath the ken of most of the inhabitants. Apart from left-handed booksellers that is; and their more intellectual right-handed and ambidextrous colleagues; and the odd police liaison officer — all of whose jobs it is to minimise the impact of anomalous and malevolent entities on mundane existences.
Anyone who lived through and indeed remembers the eighties will enjoy the sly references to fashions, popular music and politics. But also anyone who is au fait with mystical notions will recognise some familiar tropes of the period such as ley lines, earth mysteries, urban legends and other folklore. However, Nix takes these tropes, shuffles in a bit of H P Lovecraft by way of China Miéville, introduces elements of police procedural, slips in a soupçon of Dan Brown, hints at teenage romance, and throws in a Joker in the shape of Arthurian myths.
In his short story collection Across the Wall (2005) Nix admitted he “doesn’t like the Arthurian mythos” because “there are already too many stories and books that have mined the canon” re-using the same stories “with little or no variation of character, plot, theme or imagery,” and I totally concur with him. Here he stays true to his word but also cheekily references Arthurian names and objects with twists and tweaks. For example, a pair of siblings — one left-handed, the other right-handed — are called Merlin and Vivien, the former hinting at gender fluidity. Then there are the Grail keepers who guard ancient cauldrons which can reanimate corpses (as in Lloyd Alexander’s fantasies), and a sleeping warrior under a hill who isn’t Arthur, and ancient swords which don’t need to be returned to females who reside by lakes, and a quest for a maimed king…
At heart The Left-handed Booksellers of London is a homage to a Britain the Australian author has known for nearly forty years. He’d already indicated a fondness in his Old Kingdom series with a barrier not unlike Hadrian’s Wall separating a magical realm from a mundane kingdom (he even covertly reminds us here of that series with a reference to the ‘metallic taste’ of malign magic); now it’s his memories of London in the 80s and later, and of trips to the Lake District, that fuel the nostalgic feel to this novel.
With that nostalgia is fused a love of children’s fiction. It can be adventure (Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons stories) or historical fiction (Rosemary Sutcliff) but much of the influences come from the fantasy genre:
“Children’s writers,” said Merlin. “Dangerous bunch. They cause us a lot of trouble.”
” How? “asked Susan.
” They don’t do it on purpose,” said Merlin. “But quite often they discover the key to raise some ancient myth, or release something that should have stayed imprisoned, and they share that knowledge via writing. Stories aren’t always merely stories, you know.”
And there you have it: stories aren’t always merely stories. They have a power, a magic to raise ancient myth and release ideas into the imagination. Dangerous things indeed. Sinister, one could say…
Read for Readers Imbibing Perils #RIPXV