Book review: The Librarian by Salley Vickers

When a young librarian arrives to start a new job in Wiltshire in 1958, she is full of hope for the future'¦ until her ambitions are engulfed by a scandal that rocks the quaint market town.

The Librarian by Salley Vickers
The Librarian by Salley Vickers

From the author of acclaimed novels like Miss Garnet’s Angel, The Cleaner of Chartres and Cousins comes this nostalgic but subversive story about the dangers of idealism, the joy of reading, the importance of libraries, and the hypocrisies that bedevilled society in the buttoned-up Fifties.

Liverpool-born Vickers was a psychoanalyst before turning to writing fiction, and it is this desire to understand the motivations and inner workings of her characters’ minds that informs this forensic exploration of the complex nature of relationships.

But The Librarian is also a paean to the power of books to transform and inspire young people’s lives and, not surprisingly, comes from a writer who attributes much of her success to an early love of reading.

At 24, Sylvia Blackwell, a passionate reader, has led a comfortable and uneventful life, working as an assistant librarian in Swindon after a spell helping out at her local Boots lending library and graduating from the new London library school.

But now she has landed her dream job as a children’s librarian in the rural middle England town of East Mole, swapping her home in a bedsit for a charming, redbrick terraced cottage surrounded by green meadows, and eager to introduce children to books and the fictional characters who ‘can become a shaping influence and an inner guide.’

However, the apparently pleasant town is not all it seems and her project to inspire local children to read is threatened by undercurrents of prejudice. There are social pressures from both within and outside her job, and when Sylvia begins an affair with local GP Dr Hugh Bell, a married, older man, she puts both her job and her reputation at risk.

Meanwhile, the new librarian is determined to help an intelligent but deprived child to pass the impending 11 plus exams but it is Sylvia’s connection to her neighbours’ son, ten-year-old Sam Hedges, and Hugh’s precocious young daughter Marigold that will change her life.

And when the library itself comes under threat, it would seem that Sylvia’s dream will be cruelly shattered…

The book-loving Sylvia is based on the children’s librarian to whom, says Vickers in her author’s note, ‘I owe many of the books and characters that have informed not only my writing life but probably my whole take on life.’

And The Librarian, written in honour of children’s authors and libraries, features many of the books which formed the staple reading of a whole generation of youngsters. From Enid Blyton, Edith Nesbit, Beatrix Potter, C.S. Lewis and Arthur Ransome to Rudyard Kipling, Lewis Carroll, Susan Coolidge, Philippa Pearce and Charles Dickens, these are the names that engrossed avid readers of the Fifties.

Sylvia’s journey from naïve, well-intentioned young idealist to a victim of society’s strict moral codes is beautifully depicted, brimming with rich period detail, and cleverly enhanced by her relationship and interaction with the children whose minds she is determined to open to the rewards of reading.

There is perhaps a little too much preaching in a story that would work well without, but this is a clever and insightful exploration of books… their ability to empower, and their far-reaching value to every generation of reader.

(Viking, hardback, £16.99)