The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry

Bibliophiles: do you remember the librarians of your childhood?

I remember the librarian at Houndsfield Road Library in Edmonton very clearly. She was a small Scottish lady called Mary with very large glasses who spoke in the special whisper that I believe they teach at Official Librarian School. I imagine she went unnoticed by most, but I recall her and my mum often having a hushed chat, like kindred unusual spirits in the Badlands of Edmonton, and she always made a fuss of my brother Jack and I. Mum remembers that ‘she wore lots of tweedy skirts and waistcoats and high neck blouses and sensible shoes. A proper librarian. She was a bit of class in Edmonton.  How did she end up here from Scotland, I wonder?’

Reading The Library of Unrequited Love made me reflect on what a mystery Mary was to us. This wonderful novella is essentially the monologue of a librarian who discovers a reader who has been locked in the library overnight, and then launches into the story of her life, failed career, love mishaps – including her current unrequited passion for one of the regular library visitors – and her views on the world at large.

There are so many great lines in this book that I ran out of post-it stickers on the 8.17 to Charing Cross and almost had to start turning over page corners like a badman (I resisted). Our librarian is at turns hilarious (her observation that ‘Ancient Egypt exerts a fascination over the weak-minded, I’ve seen it several times in my career,’ will give anyone who’s overindulged on the Discovery Channel at the weekend a bit of a wobble), controversial (‘I know…the Terror, etc…Well, I’d like to see you have a go. A thousand years of monarchy to get rid of, you needed more than a few wimps to do that job’) and poignant (‘That’s the way it is: wars always kill the sons, never the fathers who took the decisions’). Her thoughts on books and their impact on society reiterate the importance of our librarians, particularly in their servicing of democracy – the following lines had me fist-pumping the air:

The fact is Monsieur le Ministre, that you keep [the populace] entertained because you’re afraid of them. Noise, noise, noise, never the silence of a book…he knows perfectly well that people don’t begin to foster thoughts of revolution when their ears are bombarded by noise, but in the murmuring silence of reading to oneself.

Overall this book reminds us that behind those quiet, almost invisible people we meet on our journey through life, there is a whole unknown backstory and world view, even if they describe themselves as ‘nobody, nothing at all’. I wonder what Mary’s monologue would have revealed. What did bring her to Edmonton from Scotland? For some reason, I am fixated on the idea that she had some exotic hobby that could only be exercised in our special enclave of North London. Perhaps she engaged in an early form of cage-fighting, going under the name of Mary the Mauler. (Edmonton has always been a trailblazer. You should see Leatherbarrows on the Green after dark. It all goes on down there.) You may mock, but I knew a colleague for three whole years before I found out she was a trucker in her spare time. Plus another one who ran the cat version of Crufts. I’m not making this up. You just never know.

On another note, this tale reminded me of the man who was locked in Waterstones in Trafalgar Square for a few hours a couple of years ago (read here). After reading that story, I  actually wondered how I could get myself locked in Waterstones overnight so I could bribe them for compensatory books. I’d be like, ‘Give me 100 free books per year for life and I won’t go to the press. Final offer. You are talking to a true born hustler. I come from Edmonton, land of the cage fighters, home of Mary the Mauler. Don’t be foolish now. I could bring the Waterstones empire down with the things these eyes have seen.’ I walk past that very Waterstones  every day dreaming up my plan. One day I will prevail. I will get us a good deal and sort you all out book-wise.

100-1020
Houndsfield Road Library. Opened in 1937, the ground floor was originally used as a feeding centre for undernourished children. The library closed in 1991 on the opening of Edmonton Green Library. With thanks to Graham Johnson and his fantastic website, http://www.lower-edmonton.co.uk, for this photo and information.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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18 Comments Add yours

  1. Well then, I wish you the best of luck for your mission in securing the 100 free Waterstones books. And I’ll be waiting. 😛
    But yes! I picked this book up awhile back (entirely because the cover was so whimsically pretty – shame on me and all that) and loved it to bits. It was hilarious and poignant, but also kind of sad. Like you mentioned, the librarian has a lot of nuanced observations to make, but she’s holed herself away quite literally that her wisdom never gets shared. Except with us, which I guess is something. I wonder if the author was a librarian, too – or someone like yourself, wondering about the quiet lady who sat behind the library desk.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it! It is almost a perfect book. There’s not a duff line in it. When she starts talking, it’s as if she’s been holed up so long that it all comes bursting out! I don’t know much about the author except that this is her first book, which makes her shockingly talented!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. bookheathen says:

    Let’s hear it for librarians. I know quite a few (I mean my own wife was one) and outside of the library they’re pretty much a cross section of society like any other professional group.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes let’s hear it for them! And I get what you’re saying about the diversity – they’re not all tweed and high necked blouses ha!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Jan Hicks says:

    I do remember the librarians of my childhood, because my mum was the senior library assistant at our local branch. I practically grew up in that library. My mum’s continuing best friend was my first librarian. She was (is) a giddy kipper and rather excitingly ran off with the young communist student who was working at the library to make some cash. 40 years later, they live in France in a Good Life self sufficient way. There was also Miss Marjory Bourne, who had been my mum’s first librarian at the branch but retired before I have library memories. She had a dozen cats. Mum used to take me to visit her. I loved going to her house. As well as being full of cats, there were books everywhere. Miss Bourne was a wearer of brightly coloured knitted hats and had a very surreal sense of humour. The librarians that followed were a bit corporate and frowned on mum having me in the library after school and during holidays (even though I worked for free shelving books and typing spine labels on the ancient heavy typewriter) so I choose to forget them. Although I do remember mum making me hide from one of them under the A frame book shelf in Children’s, and listening to her interrogating mum about whether I was there or not. She was awful. None of the library assistants liked her.

    I’m going to read that book.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Jan Hicks says:

      Oh, also – for another book with an excellent librarian in it, I recommend The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for the recommendation! I’ve read The Time of Our Singing by Powers. I remember really enjoying it so I will keep an eye out for your recommendation!

        Like

      2. Jan Hicks says:

        Gold Bug is my favourite of the ones I’ve read by him. It’s a love story and a mystery based around the discovery of the structure of DNA, and the librarian is kickass.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. What wonderful memories Jan – I particularly like the one who ran off with the communist student! And how wonderful to grow up in libraries in that way. I’m quite jealous!

      Like

      1. Jan Hicks says:

        I can’t deny it – it was great!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Letizia says:

    It would be a dream to be locked in a bookstore at night, wouldn’t it? Or just to have it for yourself during the day (a little less frightening perhaps, hehe).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha! Yes. I was really surprised that the man who was locked in Waterstones didn’t demand some sort of book-related compensation. He missed a trick there!

      Like

  5. the bookworm says:

    The Library of Unrequited Love sounds like a good read. Everyone does have a backstory. I remember my high school librarian as being a very mean woman…lol. All she did was ‘shush’ us during library time, but then again, maybe we were being too loud and giggly.
    Good luck with the whole Waterstones overnight/book bribe…lol

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I need to perfect my master plan. And probably stop telling everyone about it!

      Like

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