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December 9, 2014

The Bookshop That Floated Away by Sarah Henshaw

bookThe trouble with being a little bit odd is that my book recommendations are not always universal, and so it is useful when I encounter a book as odd as I am, to which I can point and say, “This book is not for everyone. BUT.” Say, if you are the type who can identify with a woman who finds an injured pigeon (while travelling on her canal boat, which she has converted into a financial under-performing bookshop) and then decides to uncover all references to pigeons in the Western canon, then The Bookshop That Floated Away by Sarah Henshaw is definitely for you. It is definitely for me. My husband is a bit relieved that I’ve finally finished it, because for the past few days, I’ve been reading him passages from every other page, and while he conceded that they were indeed quite funny, he found the whole thing rather strange.

Last night in particular was the part in the book that was narrated from the perspective of the boat itself (oh yes—and its narration replicates Black Beauty, with which the boat [called Joseph] shares a colour) in which Henshaw comes home traumatized by having found “a discarded sanitary towel pressed between the pages of a reference book on cowboys… [S]he said that book vandalism was the devil’s own trade mark, and if we saw any one who took pleasure in leaving menstrual paraphernalia between pages, we might know to whom he belonged, for the devil was a murderer from the beginning and a tormentor to the end. On the other hand, where we saw people who loved their books and were kind to hardback and soft cover, we might know that was God’s mark; for ‘God loves books.'”

To be fair, that’s probably the oddest part of the book. I don’t want to give you the wrong idea. But still….

The premise of this book initially put me in mind of Penelope Fitzgerald, with the offshore and the bookshop, and everything, and while Henshaw doesn’t reference Fitzgerald, The Bookshop That Floated Away still did not disappoint. It’s not really a book about a premise anyway, but instead very much of itself, about the curious incidents that transpire when the strange and insular worlds of books and canal boating connect. The latter is not always romantic—in Burnley, they have to navigate over a sofa, and then she fears a human head has become stuck on her propeller. And then there are the locks, so many locks, mostly manual, which is no small business when you are a solo journeyer and your boat is sixty feet long. It’s a different kind of off-roading, which results in travel book that reminded me of Beryl Bainbridge’s English Journey, if Bainbridge had been travelling by canal boat and had a propensity for hosting book clubs on her boat and imbibing far too much wine.

Henshaw’s journey comes about when her plans for opening a bookshop on a barge aren’t as lucrative as she’d supposed, the problem perhaps exacerbated by a conspicuous lack of business savvy—her one qualification for the gig is a voracious appetite for books, and the ability to see the whole world through a bookish prism. So she decides to go on a six month journey from the Midlands to London, then to Bristol, back through the Midlands to Leeds and Manchester, and then home, bartering books for Victorian sponge cake and spreading the word about the importance of independent bookshops.

On the way, she has good days and catastrophes, the boat indeed floats away, people vomit on its astroturf roof, she finds three injured pigeons, the boat is stolen, vandalized, the Mayor of Bath calls Joseph a “she”, and they are banned in Bristol. She tells her own story, and is so deft with allusion that she successfully navigates a Heart of Darkness meets Scuffy the Tugboat set-up. The narrative is further powered by other references to boatish and adventure books—Treasure Island, and The Wind and the Willows, plus Anna Karenina, The Count of Monte Cristo, Dick Whittington and His Cat, Our Mutual Friend, but not The Complete Guide to Starting and Running a Bookshop, because Henshaw couldn’t get into it.

The book is crazy wonderful, if you’re a certain kind of reader, though I suspect that if you’re reading this, you might well be. I discovered The Book Barge (which is misnamed, Henshaw tells us, and is actually a narrow boat, the discrepancy causing much consternation among boating purists) from The Bookshop Book, and was pleased to find out (spoilers!) that Henshaw decided not to jump ship at the end of her journey, determining that there was indeed nothing else worth doing as messing about in boats, as both Mole and Rat will attest.

  • Discover The Book Barge online.
  • learn more about The Book Barge
  • PS In an ironic twist of fate, The Bookshop That Floated Away is not available outside the UK (or not here at least), so I was unable to order it through my local independent bookshop, and had to get it through The Book Depository instead. But I am so glad I did…

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