This book is a love-letter to libraries, and all who work in them. It is based on the extraordinary true story of the Bethnal Green underground library, built over the tracks in the disused Bethnal Green tube station, after the original library was destroyed on the first day of the London blitz on September 7, 1940. Together with the library, there were thousands of bunk beds, a theatre, a nursery, and a cafe. This was home to East Enders fleeing the horror above ground.
Thompson covers a lot of ground in this novel, including the heated arguments surrounding the role of libraries: should they only stock ‘quality’ books that will ‘educate and edify’, or should they provide books of a more popular nature? During the war years, what women (and it was nearly all women as the men were fighting) really wanted, was escapism. ‘Books were time machines, whisking women away from the crash and the horror of the war.’ We have seen the same trend during the pandemic, with readers choosing ‘escapist’ fiction to take them as far away from the current situation as possible.
The author has skillfully drawn this cramped, underground world with all its noise and aromas, full of memorable characters. The constant fear of death and destruction is palpable. And it’s the library that is the beating heart of the community, providing a safe place for everyone, young and old, rich or poor, educated or not. As Thompson writes in her Author’s Note: ‘A library is the only place you can go – from cradle to grave – that is free, safe, democratic and no one will try to flog you anything. It’s the heartbeat of a community, offering precious resources to people in need. It’s a place just to be, to dream and to escape – with books.’
Highly recommended for historic fiction lovers, book-lovers, and library lovers.
Review by Gaby Meares
Murder on a Monday Reading Group