Clara Button is no ordinary librarian. While the world remains at war, in East London Clara has created the country’s only underground library, built over the tracks in the disused Bethnal Green tube station. Down here a secret community thrives: with thousands of bunk beds, a nursery, a café and a theatre offering shelter, solace and escape from the bombs that fall above.
Along with her glamorous best friend and library assistant Ruby Munroe, Clara ensures the library is the beating heart of life underground. But as the war drags on, the women’s determination to remain strong in the face of adversity is tested to the limits when it seems it may come at the price of keeping those closest to them alive.
My reading experience:
Firstly, Kate Thompson is a dedicated researcher, that much is obvious. Once I had finished reading this story and moved on to the notes I felt this kind of awe at how she had turned this serious piece of research which would be incredible in its own right, into a story, rich with character and emotion, transportive with olfactory and visual description, and using prose in such a way to convey split-second moments.
So I suppose I’m trying to say this is a wonderful story but behind it, is the real events of wartime (1939-1945) London. As a librarian of course I was drawn to the title, but the extra care that the author took to place quotes from librarians at the start of each chapter demonstrated the care she had taken with making her characters sound and credible.
Hard to read in places and probably vexing for younger readers is the social stratification of the day – the treatment of women and children in particular, but also the social norms of the day.
That wartime period is romanticised through various media and this isn’t necessarily a wrong thing. There was incredible hardship and loss but also strength in community and an immediacy to life that is the very epitome of mindfulness. What I have always admired was the spirit – to keep going – and my mother who was a London evacuee, taught this to her daughters. This book is full of it but also highlights the flip side of the homefront war – domestic abuse, alcoholism and extreme behaviour, and alongside that, guilt and shame, stigma and prejudice in droves.
This is going to be an annual re-read for me and I’m looking forward to the extras contained in the paperback once it is published on 1 September 2022.