Post-World War II London was a grim place, despite the Brits’ nominal victory: The skies seemed forever gray, rationing made life difficult, and rubble from the London Blitz needed to be cleared away. Still, some things persevered, like the monarchy and even quirky little bookstores. One such bookshop is the setting for Natalie Jenner’s captivating second novel, Bloomsbury Girls.
Something else that survived the war was unrepentant male chauvinism. It’s in just about every move made by Herbert Dutton, general manager of the century-old Bloomsbury Books. It is the reason Evie Stone is working at Bloomsbury Books instead of at Cambridge University, despite being one of the first women to earn a degree from that institution. It’s why Grace Perkins, Herbert’s secretary, has to rush home to make tea for her lousy layabout of a husband, and it’s what’s driving Vivien Lowry, who works in the store’s fiction department, out of her mind with rage.
Fortunately, the bookstore owner is a genuinely kind man despite his lofty status as an earl, and the head of the store’s science and naturalism department, Ash Ramaswamy, has a gentle demeanor as well. However, Ash is from India, so his mildness might be a defense mechanism against English racism, which is just as bad as English sexism. Ash and Evie strike up a sweet relationship, but in this world, men make the decisions, and women, as Evie says, “abide ’em.”
Until they don’t.
Jenner boldly mixes real history with her fictional creations, and readers who enjoy the “nonfiction novel” genre will find pleasure in parsing facts from embellishments. In particular, Evie’s great passion for cataloging books leads her to the rediscovery of one of the rarest books in the world, a science fiction novel titled The Mummy! This real-life prescient work was published in 1827 by 17-year-old Jane Webb, who went on to write more anodyne books on gardening. The Mummy! might be the way out for the downtrodden women of Bloomsbury Books. It might even be a vehicle for revenge.
Jenner, the bestselling author of The Jane Austen Society, draws readers into her tale with a genial, matter-of-fact style that’s exactly what’s expected for a novel about a humble London bookstore. Each chapter begins with one of Herbert’s many ridiculous rules, most of which are broken over the course of the book. But Bloomsbury Girls’ surface coziness puts the tumult of its characters in relief, giving the novel unexpected depth and complexity.