Monday, July 23, 2007

Sixpence House by Paul Collins - Book Review

Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books
By Paul Collins Bloomsbury 2003

I'm reading this book for the Armchair Travellers Challenge.

I chose this book because it was about the town of Hay-on-Wye in Britain (or Wales depending on how accurate you want to be), a town I have heard quite a bit about. This book has been on my wish list for a while, so when I spotted it at the library on Friday, I grabbed it.

The first time I read about the town of Hay-on-Wye was in Lady of Hay by Barbara Erskine. Now finally here was the chance to really learn what the town is like in the present day.

Paul Collins, an American born in Pennsylvania of British born parents, decided on a whim to go live in Britain for a while and see how it compared to California, which was becoming very expensive. So with his wife Jennifer and young son Morgan, they sold the house in San Francisco, packed up and moved to Hay-on-Wye.

Paul had just completed his first book (Barnvard's Folly) which was going through the process of being editing and published. So he was free to find more ideas for a new book. That turned out to be the story of the family's attempt to relocate to Hay-on-Wye.

Try as they might, Paul and Jennifer were unable to find a suitable house that was priced within their financial budget and also was not falling down. Most of the old houses up for sale were close to collapsing. Within a year, they were forced to leave Hay-on-Wye and return to America.

I was disappointed to learn that Hay is a dying town. It's only reason to survive is the Annual Book festival. It was one place I had planned to visit, if I am ever able to travel to Britain in my lifetime.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book - especially the parts where Paul and Jenn were interacting with the locals. There was Diana, their landlady who owned Pembertons Bookshop, which was the only new-books book-shop in town. Hay has 40 books shops, and 39 of them are used-book or antiquarian shops.

The Book seller Richard Booth (who actually started the whole Book Town and Book Festival phenomenon) has a book-shop full of remaindered books. There were new books and boxes arriving every day from all over the world, and these had to be shelved. But the shelving was not done in a consistent manner. And since most of these books were of such unusual topics and titles, they did not sell particularly quickly.

Richard Booth also owned the local castle on the hill above the town. Practically every large town in Britain has a castle, and while most of them belong to the Nation, some are still privately owned.

One very important thing to remember. Paul lost his American passport in the last week before leaving Britain. He foolishly chose to re-enter America using his British passport. That is a huge no-no in immigration circles.
The American government legally requires ALL American citizens to enter America on their American passports. Paul was very lucky to not have been deported back to Britain. Thats because America does NOT recognize dual citizenship - officially.
As a new immigrant, I am familiar with all the picky rules required by both American and Canadian immigration departments. I've been through both systems.

And one last thing. This author has written 3 books. Sixpence House was the second. The third book is called Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism. Its about how Paul and Jennifer's young son Morgan begins exhibiting autistic behaviour during their time in Britain and was eventually diagnosed as autistic back in the States.

While Morgan's activities were mentioned a few times during the course of Sixpence House, I did not see anything that stood out as being autistic behaviour. But then, I was not expecting or looking for it. Maybe, I'll need to skim this book again. And when I can, I plan on reading Not Even Wrong as soon as possible. I have seen it on the shelves.


Lesley said...

Yeah, US immigration is definitely not something to mess about with, especially these days. Which reminds me, I've got to get my Canadian passport renewed.

This sounds like a very enjoyable book - thanks!

Carrie K said...

I find it heartening to read that there was 39 bookstores in a dying town. Around my brother's home in Southwest PA, there's maybe four, if you scour the neighboring states. (Although I'd bet Pittsburgh has a few.)