The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted

Written by Robert Hillman
Review by Helene Williams

Tom Hope has few connections in his life; he’s known in his rural Australian town for his skills in fixing machines and for the fact that his wife, Trudy, walked out on him in 1962 after less than two years of marriage. His first real relationship is with Trudy’s son Peter, who he loves as his own, though Trudy eventually takes him away, too.

Tom’s a shell of a man when he takes a job building shelves for a bookstore in town and meets Hannah Babel, a Hungarian immigrant. They connect through a shared sense of loss and grief; while neither speaks openly about their previous lives, they make tentative steps to move forward. The past, however, cannot be ignored, and while Tom and Hannah begin to meld their lives together, memory and people intercede.

As Hannah’s bookshop begins to transform the town and the people in it, we slowly learn about her experiences in Europe during World War II, and how they underlie every action she makes—or refuses to make—now. Interspersed throughout we also see Trudy’s story, and how her decisions have shaped the lives of Tom and Peter. For much of the novel, it is difficult to see how any of these characters can forge lasting connections, given their pain and their choices.

In spare prose, Hillman outlines the anatomy of both love and loss: many-layered and intertwined, like the stories of Tom Hope and Hannah Babel. This novel swells with grief in many places, echoing the torrential storms that flood farms and destroy homes. It also provides hope for growth and belonging, if the characters are willing to risk letting love come flooding through, as well.