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Likely Stories: The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted by Robert Hillman

Story of a young man who was abandoned by his wife but finds love at last.

Robert Hillman’s first novel—The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted—turned out to be a lovely story marvelously written with a backdrop of a frightening past set in Australia.  Tom Hope has been abandoned by his wife.  He struggles to understand why his wife left him.  Trudy returns after a long period and announces she is pregnant.   She stays for a while, but then she disappears again, leaving the boy with Tom.  Then she shows up to claim her son.  Tom is devastated after raising the boy alone for a few years. 

Hillman writes, “He stood at the wooded table in the kitchen reading again and again what she’d written.  He thought: It was the rain.  He pictured her standing on the verandah in her blue dress and her cardigan while the rain came down day after day from a gray sky.  He read the note one more time.  It was written on the pink notepaper she’d used on special occasions and dated September 10, 1962.  She also left behind a piece of toast from which she’d taken a single bite.  The indent preserved the arc of her teeth” (1).  This quiet, simple man turned to his farm to sort things out.  He created a list of his faults, and then, “Tom agonized over the list of ideas” (7).

Hannah Babel arrives in town and announces she is going to open a bookshop.  The locals are polite, but behind her back, the know the idea is worthless, since only a few of the people in town have ever read a book.  Tom admits he has only read one book in his life.  He was curious about Hannah Babel, but “He knew nothing about Jews, except that they’d been knocked from pillar to post in the war” (37).  Hannah was a survivor of Auschwitz.  She lost her family and her child in the camp.

Hannah drops a note under the front and the back door.  She tells Tom about the store, and she wants to hire him to do some welding repairs.  Hillman writes, “‘When can you start work? // ‘When?  Well.  When would you like?’ // ‘Now.’ // ‘Now?’ // The tea was horrible.  Tom sipped it, barely. // ‘Not so good?’ said Hannah.  ‘You don’t like it?’ // ‘No!  No! Lovely,’ // ‘You hate it.  That’s okay.  I hate it myself.  Just for the complexion.  So you can start now?’” 

Interspersed with Tom and Hannah and the preparations for the store construction, Hillman describes Hannah’s ordeal in Auschwitz.  Hannah and two other women escaped as the Germans begin their retreat.  Hillman writes, “a week’s food would not see them to Budapest.  The farmhouses they came upon on their journey south had been stripped bare. // Hannah, Lette, and Eva muddied their faces and hair, hoping to appear too, wretched to [bother with] and approached the camps to beg for food. […]  They at least had reasonable footwear taken from the [bodies] of refugees along the roadside” (147).

Robert Hillman’s debut novel—The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted has a whole slew of funny and poignant moments.  The relationship between Tom and Hannah is tender and wonderfully written.  Don’t miss this heartfelt novel.  5 Stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!

Life-long voracious reader, Jim McKeown, is an English Instructor at McLennan Community College. His "Likely Stories" book review can be heard every Thursday on KWBU-FM! Reviews include fiction, biographies, poetry and non-fiction. Join us for Likely Stories every Thursday featured during Morning Edition and All Things Considered with encore airings Saturday and Sunday during Weekend Edition.