Review by

The Librarianist

Our misshapen and imperfect stories

Bob Comet is an unassuming retired librarian in his eighth decade, belying his surname with a distinctly sedate life. With no family or friends to speak of, Bob connects with the world through reading about it and taking long walks through his community. Plodding into an old age that is not, we’re assured, unhappy, Bob is unprepared for the life-changing turn of events waiting for him at his local senior citizens centre. In The Librarianist by Patrick deWitt, a quietly bookish man re-evaluates his life in the light of momentous revelation, aided by a cast of curious and colourful characters.

The day that everything changes begins with an unusual scene in Bob’s local 7-Eleven, an elderly lady fixated on the drinks cabinet and apparently in a state of trance. A laminated card around her neck informs Bob that she’s a resident of a nearby old folks facility, and assuming the role of good citizen, Bob takes it upon himself to escort her back. Within the hour he has spontaneously signed up as a volunteer.

Reading aloud will be his gift to the group. Perhaps some famous short stories and a speech. After all, Bob tells centre manager, Maria, ‘everyone likes to be told a story,’ a statement he ruefully regrets after the pointed snubbing of his Edgar Allan Poe rendition and ensuing mass exodus from his Russian-themed session. Turns out that Gogol is not everyone’s idea of a good time.

Despite this initial hiccup, Maria is quite taken with Bob’s steady, reliable nature. She asks him to come back (minus his books), presenting Bob with a real challenge. Having once been told that his reading obsession is probably symptomatic of an emotional deformity, he must now step into this new environment without his bookish comfort blanket.

DeWitt’s endearingly offbeat novel gives us the life of a man who has always felt that his life is small, and behaves correspondingly. Of course, an extraordinary tale is lurking beneath his Mr Ordinary façade, just waiting for this bunch of old-timers to help him retrieve it. Their personal reflections prompt Bob to examine his own life,  relayed through flashbacks to key periods and interspersed with the goings-on at the centre.

From childhood to old age, Bob’s days have centred around the library. It is a place of solace in his lonely youth, and where he later meets both the love of his life, Connie, and his only friend, Ethan, bonding over Dostoyevsky and crumbling under the weight of unforgivable deception.

Meanwhile, as secrets and scraps of recollection are teased out of Bob’s 71-year-old  memory bank, his new volunteering role delivers some inadvertent bombshells.

In turn playful and bittersweet, deWitt gives us a lovely portrayal of a gentle man finding the courage to engage with old age and acknowledge how ‘misshapen and imperfect our stories had to be.’

The Librarianist by Patrick deWitt is published by Bloomsbury Publishing, 352 pages.

Get Newsletters from Bookstoker

* = required field