In 1968, the town of Hometown, Australia, is perplexed by Hannah Babel and her survival of Auschwitz, her Jewishness and her books. Tom Hope finds her especially entrancing. Tom’s wife, Trudy, has left him and taken her son, Peter, a boy who is not Tom’s biological child but is in every sense beloved as his own.
Tom, a farmer and tradesman, is smitten with Hannah and also a bit confused by her. This erudite Hungarian woman keeps a pet bird named David and wants to open a bookshop in the less-than-bibliophilic Hometown. Her goal—to sell 25,000 books, the same number of books burned by German students in Berlin in 1933—defines her as potentially mad but also enthralling.
Tom and Hannah find the spark of redemption in each other. Their individual suffering draws them together, yet interrupts their intimacy. The horror of Auschwitz is not something Tom understands; those horrifying events occurred a world away from his life in Australia. Hannah doesn’t want to burden him either, so as their connection grows, she must face the vows she made not to be a wife or mother again.
In The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, Robert Hillman’s observations are astute and thoughtful as he captures the slightest mood shift and nuance of personality. The inner workings of his finely tuned and memorable characters come to life in his open, honest style of writing. In particular, Hannah’s voice carries both the sorrow of the tragedies she’s lived through and a childlike glee when she finds something marvelous. Her pursuit of beauty—despite it all—inspires.
“God lets us love,” a character observes late in the novel. The broken hearted can be healed. Fractures, even of the heart, can be set. As it says in the book of Joel in the Old Testament, the years the locusts have eaten can be restored.