The London Bookshop Affair
By Louise Fein
HarperCollins
ISBN: 978-0-0633-0484-0
416pp.

London, women and bookshops... The combination of these immediately caught my attention, drawing me to pick up The London Bookshop Affair by Louise Fein.

Fein’s debut and bestselling novel, Daughter of the Reich, was set in the 1930s, while her second book, The Hidden Child, focused on the eugenics movement in 1920s’ England and America. With a passion for historical research and writing, her latest literary offering explores the past and similar themes, but with an uncanny resonance with today’s world.

It is 1962. There is the looming threat of nuclear war, but life stubbornly must carry on. South Londoner, 19-year-old Celia Duchesne, aspires to a meaningful career, preferably with the BBC, yet she finds herself confined to the mundane routines of a neglected bookshop, lacking the means, qualifications or connections to pursue her goals.

Mrs Denton, the glamorous new owner of the shop, is currently occupied with settling in, leaving Celia to fend for herself. However, there is some sliver of hope when a charming 26-year-old American customer, Septimus Nelson, walks through the shop’s doors, sparking Celia’s imagination with the possibility of a way out from her stagnant existence.

A gripping historical drama centring around a young girl and a London bookshop involved in a Cold War espionage network offers a multifaceted exploration of the human experience

Celia begins to work on self-care — she hides her inflated salary from her parents and develops a romantic interest for Septimus, who works at the American Embassy in London and carries a baggage of his own secrets. She signs up for night school, and tries to evade the boy next door that her parents have chosen for her. Just as she begins to revel in the excitement of it all amidst the growing romance, a dark secret emerges, thrusting her into a sneaky, murky world of espionage.

Little does Celia know, but the owner of the bookstore, Mrs Denton, is a villain, and her newfound romantic interest, Septimus, is a spy involved in Cold War espionage. As if that weren’t sufficient, the villain is engaged in dubious intelligence dealings with the individual who betrayed Celia’s biological mother — a former spy for Churchill — during World War II.

At approximately the same time, Celia’s closest friend, Daphne, stumbles upon this information regarding Celia while working at the solicitors’ office. Shocked by her findings, Daphne is determined to uncover all the concealed truths.

In a parallel universe, set in France during the tumultuous year of 1942, the story unfolds with 19-year-old pianist Anya Moreau’s clandestine mission behind enemy lines, aiding the resistance by transmitting crucial messages to London via wireless communication. Yet, Anya’s courageous efforts are met with betrayal, shrouding her legacy and the truth of her sacrifices in the fog of wartime deception and injustices. Following the betrayal, she is arrested by and transferred to the Gestapo, the official secret police of Nazi Germany.

It is 1962. There is the looming threat of nuclear war, but life stubbornly must carry on. South Londoner, 19-year-old Celia Duchesne, aspires to a meaningful career, preferably with the BBC, yet she finds herself confined to the mundane routines of a neglected bookshop, lacking the means, qualifications or connections to pursue her goals.

As Celia delves deeper into Anya’s past and her unexpected connection to an undercover agent, she discovers a web of relentless endeavours — both historical and in her present — to safeguard classified information. With her newfound romance taking twists and turns, and the world teetering on the brink of nuclear catastrophe — with the ongoing Cuban missile crisis at the time of the presidency of JFK in the US — Celia finds herself compelled to risk everything she holds dear, in pursuit of justice.

The novel oscillates between two timelines — from 1942 to 1962 — and is easy to follow. Drawn from real-life events and individuals involved in the Cold War era, it covers a period when a genuine risk of nuclear conflict loomed between the two superpower nations, the United States and the Soviet Union. As England stood as America’s ally, mobilising to provide assistance, it found itself infiltrated by Soviet spies — a truth Celia uncovers firsthand.

Set in the tumultuous yet exciting 1960s, the period marked the advent of television, the rise of the Beatles, and profound shifts in social, political and cultural landscapes. The narrative delves into pivotal events such as the Cuban missile crisis, brimming with action and information. Specifically, it explores the activities of the campaign for nuclear disarmament, a British organisation vehemently opposed to the proliferation and deployment of nuclear weapons.

Intriguing and gripping, The London Bookshop Affair leaves the reader full of excitement as one turns the pages through a compelling narrative of secrets and romance. Beyond its classification as historical fiction, this novel delves into themes of courage, love and justice, offering a multifaceted exploration of the human experience. The writing style vividly portrays a society on the precipice of nuclear annihilation, evoking emotions and imagery in the reader’s mind that are horrific.

Navigating through the complex and interesting characters of Septimus and the mysterious Mrs Denton kept me immersed and second guessing everything. It is important to go through the author’s notes in the end, which will give the readers a clearer and better understanding of the mentioned events and the characters inspired by their real-life counterparts.

For instance, groups such as Spies for Peace, affiliated with the British anti-war group Committee of 100, empowered individuals to launch impactful campaigns against nuclear weapons and heightened public awareness of the realities.

This goes to show Fein’s meticulous research before beginning with the story, leaving one with the feeling that we, as citizens, know very little about the politics and purpose behind global events and how governments often play them out at our expense.

The reviewer is a content lead at an agency. She can be reached at sara.amj@hotmail.co.uk

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 28th, 2024

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