Here’s another review that starts with a “yes, I know the author” disclaimer. I used to work for Elizabeth Murphy a few years ago, when I was in grad school. I was her research assistant. She often talked, then, about the novel she was working on. But she was so completely dedicated to and involved with her academic work that I wondered if the novel would ever be reality, or if she was one of the many would-be writers who would keep putting creative writing on the back burning in favour of research and other career-related work.
You can imagine how pleasantly surprised I was, then, to get an invitation to the launch of Elizabeth’s novel, An Imperfect Librarian. It’s the story of Carl Brunet, who moves to St. John’s, Newfoundland to work at the university library while recovering from a painful and messy separation from his wife. As Carl settles awkwardly into his new life, making friends and exploring a new romance, the novel explores the unique experience of someone coming from “away” into the tight-knit world of St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Elizabeth Murphy is at her best as a writer when exploring the St. John’s setting. She not only captures the sense of this place perfectly with rich and telling detail; she also does a convincing job of showing it to us through the eyes of an outsider. Newfoundlanders are notoriously friendly and welcoming but also notoriously slow to truly accept someone from “away” as one of them. This sense of always being on the margins is beautifully realized in Carl, for whom the experience is all the sharper because he is one of nature’s outsiders, always on the margins even of his own life.
Another layer of richness to the book is the love of libraries, books and bibliophiles that comes through in the story (Carl’s new love interest, Norah, has three Labrador retrievers named Quarto, Folio, and Octavo). The library setting, complete not just with books but with territorial and competitive librarians locked in endless workplace struggle with each other, is as vividly detailed as the broader world of St. John’s.
The novel also comes complete with a varied and eccentric cast of characters: Carl’s pithy Irish friend and co-worker Henry, his landlords Cyril and Mercedes, the lovestruck Edith who yearns for Carl and the enigmatic Norah, for whom Carl yearns. If I have one quibble with the book it’s that these characters, so vivid and lively on the surface, are not always explored or fleshed out as richly as I would like. This is a quibble that extends to the main character: Carl is intriguing, and some aspects of his inner life — for example, his constant comparison of his sojourn in Newfoundland to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe — are very well developed indeed. But at many key points in the book I was unclear how Carl felt about what was happening, and I was unsure of his motives for some of the things he did, which left me wishing that character had been as painstakingly developed as setting in this novel.
The ending is bittersweet; satisfying yet leaving a major plot thread permanently unresolved. I’m a sucker for resolutions, so I was a little disappointed, but not completely unsatisfied. An Imperfect Librarian is a quirky, witty novel with a great deal to offer — in particular, the best fictional depiction yet of what it feels like to be a “come from away” in the city where everybody knows everyone’s name.