The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

One sentence plot
The Queen happens upon a mobile library and becomes an avid reader, much to the consternation of her family, staff, and the public.

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The review
I can’t believe I have only just read this delight of a novella which has been around since 2007 and lurking unassumingly in a quiet corner of my Kindle for literally months. This book is a happy combination of so many excellent features. It is a charming fantasy tale in the tradition of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. It has a strong, dispassionate, chronological reporting-style narrative voice in the manner of John Wyndham. It has a sparkling female character at its centre. It offers an insight (albeit speculative) into a closed and quite fascinating world. It is a bit subversive. It is technically speculative fiction. It is clever. It is witty. And above all, it is a love letter to books, a fond embrace of libraries, a glorious celebration of the transformative power of literature.

The Uncommon Reader is a story of the present-day Queen who, in a walk around the Buckingham Palace grounds with her corgis one Wednesday afternoon, stumbles upon a mobile library in the Palace grounds and, wanting to be polite, borrows a book. In doing so, she slowly but vigorously becomes a joyful, prolific reader, preferring reading over her other activities, much to the consternation of her household and advisors who want her to return to enacting her age-old duties and do nothing more, want nothing more, think nothing more, be nothing more… But literature changes the Queen, and possibly changes history. This book pokes fun at a lot of institutions. It depicts her family and advisors in a believable way. It captures the Queen’s tone, background and motivations delightfully. It draws a life that made me feel sympathy for the Queen. And it gets subversive in all sorts of ways that a few hundred years ago would surely have left the author executed for treason.

For all these weighty qualities, the book is light and fun, with characters that dance off the page and make their reader chuckle. It’s very well done. It is truly a little treat of a book. My best read of the year so far.

The verdict: 5/5 shoes

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