For the committed bibliophile, a personal library possesses profound importance. It’s not just a collection of books, it’s a shifting monument that evolves through their sheer passion, one which reflects their most intimate selves albeit in a way that cannot be immediately discerned by others, but for them, it shines from the bookcases. Moreover, each and every book holds a memory. Yet, just as the bibliophile lays passionate claim on their books, the books, in their fashion, lay claim upon them, in ways both subtle and surprisingly forceful.
Such intense connection to books lies at the heart of Audrey Niffeneggar’s beguiling graphic novella, The Night Bookmobile. Originally serialised in The Guardian– a la Posey Simmonds’ Gemma Bovary and Tamara Drewe, also published by Jonathan Cape – and adapting her 2004 short story of the same name, it’s the first true graphic novel for the best-selling author of The Time-Traveller’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry following the “visual novels” The Three Incestuous Sisters (2005) and The Adventuress (2006).
The simple, yet penetrating tale sees a young woman named Alexandra who, walking home on Chicago’s streets on a late summer’s night at 4 am, comes across a suitably-surreal sight: an aged Winnebago which houses a mobile library with, she soon realises, a very specific stock – everything she has ever read. In the drivers seat is the eerily patient Mr.Openshaw, the pleasantly-tweedy librarian with a penchant for Bob Marley and Joni Mitchell. Shocked but enchanted, Alexandra sees the curious library as a repository of her most intimate self – her happiest self – but a return visit to The Night Bookmobile proves incredibly elusive, and as for the question of her working there, Mr. Openshaw offers the cryptic reply “You don’t know what you’re asking…”
Beautifully melancholic and utterly heart breaking, Niffeneggar’s cautionary fantasy achieves a great deal in its slender 40 pages – indeed, I don’t recall a narrative climax so simultaneously uplifting and sad since the final episode of BBC’s Life On Mars.Readers of Niffeneggar’s novels will be only too aware of her capability for an elegantly-crafted sentence and here she complements that talent – “Ravenswood is not very wide, and the Night Bookmobile gave the impression, gliding down the street, of a large egg sliding through the body of a snake” – with her engaging artwork, rich with warm colours and giving wonderful visual expression to the unique power that books have over us, crafting an ineffably poignant whole.
The Night Bookmobile is a perfectly-rendered gem of a comic that speaks with great precision and eloquence about how we relate to books as well as providing a compelling reminder that there’s a real world beyond that on the printed page. In her Afterword, Niffeneggar says that The Night Bookmobile is the first part of a much larger work called The Library. Let’s hope that it continues as a graphic novel rather than a prose short story, as this is a superb and deeply-affecting addition to any precision-packed personal library and should be revisited often.
The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffeneggar is published by Jonathan Cape on 14th October, priced £16.99.