As the novel opens, we meet Peter in the mid 1990s now living in a village called Kingham in Oxfordshire, England, without Amanda, who we know has now sadly died, and what happened is revealed over the course of the novel. Peter is bereft, and has been unable to face the routine of his daily life for many months. Eventually, now an antiquarian bookseller and on an outing to Hay-on-Wye, the famous book town in Wales, he uncovers a watercolour image, a portrait, in an old book. The image is of his wife, and yet it can't be; it's a Victorian picture. Shocked by the similarity, he endeavours to discover the history and origin of the portrait, and this search sets his life in motion again and leads him into the path of a potentially life-changing book-related mystery that takes him, and the reader, back to the days of Shakespeare. Whilst assessing the old book collection of a resident of Kingham, Peter stumbles across an incredible find that may just prove the provenance once and for all of what is, for some, one of the biggest mysteries in literary history; that Shakespeare really was the author of the plays attributed to him. The mystery plot in the novel explores whether Peter can prove the authenticity of his find, and if he will get himself and others killed trying to do so.
This is an entertaining, suspenseful mystery tale that has a love of books at its very heart. There is also a centuries-old rivalry, murder, forgery, and intrigue, with a strong and moving love story between Peter and Amanda underpinning it all; the discovery of the way they felt about each other was something neither of them had ever felt before and it changed their lives, bringing love and companionship to two previously lonely souls. It is touching how well the two relate to each other, how Amanda brings Peter out of his shell a little, and how he slowly comes to terms with her devastating loss. The author maintains Peter's social unease and effectively portrays how he gradually becomes braver and finds the strength that he will need if he is to see his quest through.
I enjoyed the three different strands that make up the story; they were weaved together well and kept my interest. I liked the historical aspects and was entertained meeting characters from the past as we learned the history of the book in question; we are taken back to see whose hands it passed through, and where, and how it came to be where it was, and I really enjoyed this aspect of the narrative. This is an enticing story for bibliophiles. Also enjoyable was the journey around to different locations. It takes us from Hay-on-Wye, to the British Museum, via Oxfordshire, Yorkshire, Cornwall and North Carolina, too.
It was a real escape and quite an adventure reading this novel. I read the bulk of it in the garden on a warm summer's day and it was ideal reading for escaping into and being entertained by; I was happy to allow for some of the convenient coincidences and twists in the story, and it was perhaps slightly too perfect an ending, but the adventure and history grabbed me and had me intrigued. I think reading it fairly quickly helped with keeping track of the three different time periods and holding the various events in my mind at once. It has encouraged me to want to go and read more about what is known of the lives of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
The author evidently has a real passion for, and knowledge of, his subject here - he's a former bookseller - which comes through in his enthusiastic telling of this tale, weaving passages on restoring books and details about the clever ways of book forgers into the narrative. Overall, I thought that The Bookman's Tale was a really good read, an absorbing and fun literary-themed mystery.