In what’s supposed to be a slightly alternate 1983, Susan Arkshaw is about to start university, but first she wants to find her biological father. Before she can even begin to start her new life in London, Susan’s life is turned upside down. She meets up with a man who may know something about her dad, crime boss Frank Thringley, but before anything can happen, Frank is dead at the hands of Merlin, a left-handed bookseller, and her life will never be the same again.
The Left-Handed Booksellers of London is a 2020 fantasy novel by Australian author Garth Nix. I’m not much of a fantasy reader, that stage passing me in my early teens after the Harry Potter urban fantasy trend died down. But I was on Borrowbox, which is like Libby, and this audiobook rekindled something in me. I’m certain I read Nix as a child, so I decided ‘Why not? Why not read his fiction again?’ Left-Handed Booksellers, in its plot, sounded similar to Pages & Co by Anna James, and while it wasn’t that similar once I got into it, I still surprisingly enjoyed this 11-hour audiobook.
Perhaps it’s because I listened to this as an audiobook, but all the problems the Goodreads reviewers had with this didn’t feel as bad to me. The narrator, Marisa Calin, had an intensely listenable voice, and I actually looked forward to every chance I had to listen to more. All the negative reviews reference the grammatical issues and the “showing not telling”—a cardinal sin for writing—however all of this makes more sense in audiobook form. They say the narrator maketh the audiobook, and it’s true, because I’m not sure if I would have listened to 11 hours of this plot if it was subpar narration. However, there are a bunch of creatures and characters I have no idea how to spell properly, and had to make a visit to Amazon and Goodreads reviews to find out. For example, for the entirety of the book, I misheard Merlin and Vivien’s surname, St. Jacques, but it didn’t effect the reading.
As thrillers and mysteries tend to be my favourite genre, the mystery surrounding Susan’s father—and, to a lesser extent, the disappearance of Merlin and Vivien’s mother—was the driving force that kept me hooked. The big reveal about her father was worth it, and I actually liked it. Susan finds out who—or what—her father is, but it’s not one hundred percent happy and bookended and what she expects. I would’ve liked to hear more about her mother’s reaction, but I suppose that’s why it’s an open ending. It’ll open up more opportunities for adventures with Susan, Merlin, and Vivien. The reveal with the St. Jacques twins’ mother is vaguely predictable, but shocking nonetheless, and what happens to the person responsible for keeping it quiet is…memorable. I hope the cat gets a mention if there’s a sequel.
Susan didn’t feel too much like a fully realised character—Nix attempted to paint her as a rebel with her Doc Martens, alternative look, and desire to work in pubs and love of art, but it didn’t really make her a character and it didn’t match her actual personality. I felt she could have been fleshed out more. She was a bit bland. I liked Merlin more as a character; he has way more of a personality, and while he’s advertised as genderfluid, I was happy to read a book with a straight male character who’s not embarrassed to embrace fashion and aesthetics. The romance subplot between Susan and Merlin was also a nice slow-burn. The whole Englishness of it felt very, well, English, but also reminds me that the English do have some culture, even it’s disgusting bland sandwiches, weird place names and empty country roads (except scarecrows. Note to self: Don’t make eye contact with a scarecrow), or even just sipping tea quietly while reading a good book in a centuries old library that’s called the New Library because convoluted reasons that make sense if you read the book. Much like with Pages & Co, the whole thing about books being the superior art form always grates on me, but in the context of this being 1983 and how ingrained bookselling is with the Left- and Right-Handed, I can understand why. The ’80s setting, while not actually playing that much into the plot, made Susan a more realistic teenager, considering Garth Nix is a late Baby Boomer whose writing of modern eighteen year olds, I assume, would probably be clunkier and more awkward than he’d intend.
Will I read from Garth Nix again? Definitely. I would definitely be willing to listen to more adventures of Susan and her twin bookseller friends, especially if it’s the same narrator. Nix has taught me not to rule out a genre I don’t normally go for, and that can only be a good thing. Maybe it’s time to pull out that dusty copy of Chronicles of Narnia and finally reread the series I haven’t looked at in nearly two decades? Nix writes (and Calin reads) an intensely addictive, readable jaunt, and while I may have had some problems, I was utterly immersed in the world. I loved Merlin as a character, the mystery over Susan’s mother and Merlin and Vivien’s mother was page-turning. Most of all, I’m ready to stray out of my regular genre. Except straight romances. They’re apparently still mostly off-limits.
Are there any books you’ve read outside your normal genres that you’ve found strangely addictive? Let me know!