“The book will fade, the way all books fade in your mind. But I hope you will remember this: A man walking fast down a dark lonely street. Quick steps and hard breathing, all wonder and need. A bell above a door and the tinkle it makes. A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.”
Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore has been talked about a lot over the past year, but I knew little more going into it than that it was about a man, some books and a bookstore. I’m glad I went into it only knowing this, as it made it an original, refreshing read which is hard to pinpoint to any one genre or theme.
The story revolves around Clay Jannon, a tech-savvy 20-something who goes from a role managing the website for NewBagel, to working in a musty bookstore alongside the by the intriguing, mysterious and elderly proprietor, Ajax Penumbra.
Stranger than Clay’s change in career is the bookstore itself; a shop that stays open 24 hours a day and yet only has a small selection of repeat customers who visit in the dead of night, always desperate for their next book. They never pay for their books, but instead swap one for the next, flashing a special membership card to a club Clay doesn’t fully understand.
It seems a peculiar way for a store to run, and one which piques the curiosity of Clay and his newfound Googler girlfriend, Kate. Together with Clay’s handy rich friend Neil, they embark on a journey to get answers.
And that’s where things really get interesting. Clay takes advantage of the technology at Google to understand age-old books in a story which wonderfully combines old knowledge with new technology, with a sprinkle of magic along the way. It’s a journey which takes him to the heart of a 500-year-old cult, across America from San Francisco to New York to a wonderfully quirky, creepy and enthralling reading room, as they delve through coded books and arcane mysteries in order to find answers.
Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is entertaining and lighthearted throughout. It explores the concept of new vs old technology in a completely new way and it does it well. However, I’ve got to admit that I never felt that much empathy or connection with the characters; the story flows quickly, but without a huge amount of character development. They felt a little stereotypical and one-dimensional at times – the good guy searching for answers; the clever and beautiful girlfriend; the mysterious, wizard-like bookshop owner.
This story is more an exploration of a love of books and technology, both of which I could relate to. The writing style is enjoyable, and the text is littered with a combination of witty one-liners – “He has the strangest expression on his face – the emotional equivalent of 404 PAGE NOT FOUND.” and more profound proclamations such as this: “There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care. All the secrets in the world worth knowing are hiding in plain sight.”.
All in all, Mr Penumbra is a book which will make you laugh and make you think – it may even make you cry. I enjoyed it immensely, but as a character-driven reader, it won’t make it into my all-time favourites.