09 May 2023

Review: Death of a Bookseller by Alice Slater

Death of a Bookseller by Alice Slater book cover

* Copy courtesy of Hachette Australia *

Death of a Bookseller takes place in a Walthamstow bookshop in London called Spines and is told by two employees of the shop, Roach and Laura. These two book-loving protagonists couldn't be more different from each other. 

Brogan Roach has always been fascinated by death, and obsessively listens to true crime podcasts and purchases books about serial killers through the shop with no intention of paying for them. Roach has a Giant African Snail for a pet (which was fascinating) and an open disdain for people she terms 'normies'.

Laura on the other hand is the polar opposite of her colleague; wearing vintage tea dresses, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and leaving a trail of rose oil perfume wherever she goes. Laura is charismatic and popular with the staff and customers, and Roach becomes fixated:
"Laura Bunting. Her name was garden parties, and Wimbledon, and royal weddings. It was chintzy tea rooms, Blitz spirit, and bric-a-brac for sale in bright church halls. It was coconut shies and bake sales and guess-the-weight-of-the-fucking-cake." Page 1
Roach is socially awkward yet desperate to become friends with Laura, convinced they have much in common, including a shared interest in true crime. Roach's desperate attempts to befriend Laura and her subsequent awkward rejection reminded me a little of Single White Female (minus the violence) meets The Perfect Girlfriend by Karen Hamilton. The protagonists in both have an unhealthy obsession and go to lengths that make the average reader cringe with thoughts of "don't do that, you're going to get caught" or "stop, you're making it worse".

As the plot thickened, I didn't condone some of the escalating actions of our characters, but I equally couldn't look away as tensions at the bookshop boil over.

I liked the select use of the snail illustration at the bottom of the page, and initially thought this was a technique employed to indicate Roach was narrating the chapter. However, as we get into the story the snail begins to appear in both alternating chapters. If you've read this and have a theory on the snail illustration, please let me know.

Spines is a standout setting for the majority of Death of a Bookseller by Alice Slater, however this reflection from Laura nixed any niggling fantasies about what it might be like to work in a bookshop:
"And the customers - oh, the customers. The customers are everywhere, like lice, crawling all over the shop, touching everything, knocking things over, dropping rubbish, leaving destruction in their wake. And they just keep coming, more and more every day. Customer enquiries, customer reservations, customer orders, customers lost, customers queuing, customers that need serving, customers that need the toilet, customers that want someone to yell at because their lives are spiralling out of control, because suddenly they're tired and it feels like only yesterday that they were still sleeping around and partying and couldn't care less about anything else, and now they're in their thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, and everything hurts and no one cares and life hasn't worked out the way they'd expected it to, so all they have left is the dizzy power of punching down at the bookseller who's ordered in the wrong book on kindness. They dawdle and moan, always in the way, always wanting something, demanding attention and servitude with an anxious impatience, their expectations high and their fuses short." Pages 253-254
I love that, 'expectations high and their fuses short'. Snappy writing like this offsets the slowly building tension and allowed for a few thoughtful character insights. Here, Laura reflects on the grief she has for her mother's passing.
"I never got around to reading the rest of my mother's books, but the bitterness of losing her library faded when I understood the real power of reading. It's not the physical books, books as artefacts, as objects, that actually matter. The pages that my mother touched, turned, folded, read, don't hold the same reverence as her winter scarf, her handwriting. The books themselves are no more meaningful than the streets she walked on, the mugs she drank from, the sheets she slept in. It's the words that have power. Somewhere between the ink that's printed on each page and my understanding of the content is a plain across which my mother's mind has also wandered, and that landscape exists in every single edition, whether or not it has been touched by my mother's hand. That's the power of reading." Page 73
I love that! Yet, it's also the power of reading that demonstrates I can simultaneously agree and disagree with that quote and still find some reverence in physical books read by a loved one.

Death of a Bookseller by Alice Slater is set in a bookshop I'd love to visit one day, although I don't think I'd like to be served by flawed and troubled staff like Roach or Laura. Slater's experience working for Waterstones in London has enabled her to take us behind the till of a busy bookshop to the drama simmering between the stacks and deliver an entertaining psychological thriller.


My Rating:

Would you like to comment?

  1. This book popped up in my GRs feed and I had to come here to read your review. Thanks, I’ve added it to my TBR list.

    1. Thanks Diana, keen to hear what you make of Roach. Have you seen the other book cover design? I think I prefer this one though.

  2. I borrowed this from the library this week. I’ll be starting it next up. I haven’t seen the alternative cover.

  3. I finished this tonight. Even though there were ‘don’t do that’ moments I felt compelled to read on. I do hope the ending didn’t indicate more obsession for Roach. 🪳 I thought the snail 🐌 moving across the bottom of the page indicated the increasing tension and the book heading for a climax.

    1. Thanks for coming back to let me know how you got on with this one Diana, the characters are unlikeable aren't they? Love your theory about the snail illustrations!


Thanks for your comment, Carpe Librum!