How can you review a book like this?
I mean, seriously?
It was just so incredibly sweet and heart-warming and just delightful and you can’t review that, just enjoy it!
The book is set in Paris and follows a few weeks in the life of Guylain Vignolles, a lover of books whose job is to operate a book-pulping machine, the dreaded Zerstor 500. The descriptions of the Zerstor as a hulking, malignant beast are wonderfully grotesque.
In itself that dynamic is deliciously poignant but the cast of characters which populate the few pages of the novel (less than 100) are a little two-dimensional, almost to the point of caricature: Yvon, the security guard who only speaks in Alexandrine rhyming couplets, whose poetic remonstrations with rude delivery drivers was wonderful; the brutal Brunner, desperate to be the one who turns the machine on; the corpulent Kowalski, overseeing the operation from his “glazed eyrie”; Giuseppe, the victim of an accident at work in which his legs had been caught in the Zerstor and lost; and, of course, Rouget de Lisle, the goldfish. These characters are not fleshed out fully – there’s no space to do so – and they don’t quite reach the grotesque proportions of a caricature. They do give the novel a heightened feel to it.
Guylain is so horrified by the destruction which he is a part of that, every day, he rescues any pages that have survived the machine and reads them aloud on the train to work the next day. A process which might have led to his being incarcerated but which in fact endears him to the crowd of commuters with whom he shares the carriage.
One of many memorable moments is when Guylain, invited to read in an retirement home, surrounded by dozens of pensioners, launches into his reading only to discover that it is pornographic.
One day, he discovers a memory stick abandoned on the train and, when he reads it, he falls in love with the woman, Julie, who has written the words. And so begins a quest to find her.
This book was a Waterstones read of the month for May and it is wonderful.
It’s not challenging. If I’m honest, I don’t think it does “champion the power of literature” as such – sorry to the Sunday Times. But in a world fed on a diet of the brutal, the venal and the superficial, this book is a refreshing and wholesome change where respect, friendship and courtesy are – if it’s not too strong a word – championed.