Death of a Bookseller by Alice Slater

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

I read Death of a Bookseller in a state of apathy, mildly amazed that such vulgar writing could be sold as “deliciously dark, unsettling, and utterly addictive”. The book is said to be a thriller; I found not even the vestiges of a thrill. Maybe I’m a worn-out curmudgeon who has reached his ‘plough-in date’, but I don’t think so. Let’s examine the book.

The prologue is one of the few passages of positive prose to appear in the early part of the book. It depicts a delightful Laura Bunting, undoubtedly as she was before the gossips re-structured her. Laura brings to the den of lost souls what this group of library staff had lost. Her enthusiasm and sense of purpose were powerful weapons but battling against the opposition. Then she met Roach.

Page Five begins the book with an image certain to disenchant lovers of good English literature. Readers would need to return to the days of Sterne and Smollett to match ‘lights like projectile vomit’ and ‘cheerful, blank-eyed selfies’. It does not feel at all remiss to discover (page 31) that Roach has gone  through Laura’s discarded coat, followed by clothes habitually worn; that her attitude besmirches the beauty of Laura’s pen pictures of fellow workers. Roach reveals her own nastiness with her claim of having to restrain ‘an instinctive repulsion’. Finally, her statement that Laura relies on “an aura of neediness radiat[ing] from her” is completely without foundation. The books, presumably Laura’s personal choices, are, to Roach, strange, poorly printed crap from obscure presses. “She carried a bruise of blue ink…lots of different tubes of grease and slime”, nothing at all positive.

Roach’s attempt to engage Laura in a discussion of poetry is firmly rebuffed. “My poetry isn’t written for people like her” (53). Laura’s conversation with Eli leaves no room for Roach to manoeuvre between them. Her view of Roach is crystallised in her claim that “uneasiness settles over me and I realise it’s because my thoughts keep returning to my conversation with Roach at the bar. I love serial killers” (70). Laura sees that Roach was practically salivating.  Laura’s view of poetry soars at a much higher level than Roach will ever attain. Hers is a plateau where her mother’s mind has wandered, a landscape to be discovered in every single edition. For Laura, that’s the power of reading.

Marked differences exist between Laura’s writing and that of Roach. While Laura may never win a literary prize, her work is distinguished from her contemporaries, not by merit but by industry. She uses her ability in the service of others (I could imagine her fury when she discovers that   Mark has reassembled her work). By contrast, Roach’s mind is so stultified that she is quite unable to experience a genuine thought. Roach is bent on returned insult for imagined hurts and carries out her vengeance within the narrow scope of her limited imagination.

The book title suggests a murder. One would expect to be dealing with an unnatural death within a few chapters but, although one of the characters appears to have gone to God after a rather long time has passed, she seems to be wandering the neighbourhood after that unhappy event. Her peregrinations appear after her death.

Readers would be advised to contemplate the death of which bookseller, the physical or alternative death. Since death is such a big issue for one of the characters, perhaps it should be treated accordingly. There is disagreement over the quality of this story, maybe the quality of the bookseller’s death requires special thought.

This is a very strange book.

Death of a Bookseller


by Alice Slater

Hachette Australia

ISBN: 978-1-529-38533-5

$32.99; 386 pp

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