Amelia Mellor, The Grandest Bookshop in the World, Affirm Press, March 2020, 304 pp., RRP $16.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781922419347
After reading The Grandest Bookshop in the World, I am deeply envious of anyone who ever got to set foot in the Coles Book Arcade in Melbourne. The books! The toys and lollies and mechanical curiosities! The Tea Room and the band and the monkeys! The books! Even without the actual magic that Amelia Mellior has written into this story, the Book Arcade sounds like the most magical place on earth, and I delighted in the descriptions of it.
The Arcade existed on Bourke St in Melbourne around the end of the 19th century, and for a time was, indeed, the largest bookshop in the world. Mellior has added a touch of magic, charm, chills, and adventure to the already extraordinary tale of the Arcade and the family of Edward Cole, who built and owned and lived in the bookshop.
The story begins when Pearl Cole encounters the mysterious and sinister Obscurosmith in the Arcade, and he offers her father a deal that could take away everything Edward Cole has worked so hard to create. When Pearl and her brother Vally find out what their father has done, they make the Obscurosmith a counter-offer – they have twenty-eight hours to play his game and win all seven challenges. If they win, the Arcade and their father is saved. If not, they stand to lose everything, and even their memories of their family and everything connected to the Arcade will be gone.
There are clues in bouquets of flowers, and seven challenges to match the seven colours of the Arcade’s rainbow, and seven different rooms in the Arcade. The challenges are cleverly constructed and tensely written, and they centre around puzzles like the ones in the Coles Funny Picture Books, which were written by Edward Cole himself, and which many adult readers will remember from their childhoods. I admit to feeling rather proud of myself for working out the first puzzle before Pearl and Vally did, and I got caught up in the race to solve each of the seven challenges as the dangers mounted.
Under the magic and whimsy, however, are deeper layers of menace as the Obscurosmith infiltrates their lives and the Arcade. Mellior keeps the pace moving along and ups the ante with some beautifully creepy moments. Deeper still is the grief and sadness left behind by the death of Pearl and Vally’s sister, Ruby, three years ago. This drives much of the story, and the impact of Ruby’s loss is explored in some detail. Particularly sensitive young readers might have a hard time with the dark, gothic outcome of Edward Cole’s grief and the nature of his deal with the Obscurosmith, and for those readers I would suggest that an adult take a look at The Grandest Bookshop first.
The thread of family runs through Pearl and Vally’s challenges, and the connection between the family as a whole is explored, but also the links between each of them as individuals. Mellior addresses the ways in which the actions and decisions of one family member impacts on them all, and I appreciated the way that Pearl comes to realise that it is not just the family who are threatened by the deal they have made with the Obscurosmith, but also the staff who owe their livelihood to the Arcade and the customers who draw a sense of wonder from the very existence of the bookshop. The stakes of the game with the Obscurosmith are increasingly high.
The Grandest Bookshop is going to be a brilliant story for young readers aged 11 and up who would enjoy puzzles and a gripping, charmed read that comes from the magical spaces of our very own Melbourne instead of mythical Diagon Alley or Nevermoor. Whether readers pick it up for the magic, the history or the challenge, The Grandest Bookshop has, like the Arcade itself, something for everyone.
Reviewed by Emily Clarke