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Review by Julia Newhouse
The dawn of digital publishing has ushered in a new life for many beautifully written books that had a moment in the sun, before disappearing out of print. One such gem is ‘Madensky Square’ by Eva Ibbotson. Set in Vienna in 1911, ‘Madensky Square’ is a postcard from a bygone era, and a style of life that would disappear with World War One. The book centres around the titular square- a little enclave that houses dressmaker Susanna Weber, and a variety of characters ranging from the Schumacher family with a gaggle of young daughters, to little piano prodigy Sigismund.
For quite a short book, we are introduced to dozens of characters connected to the square. Each are drawn so vividly as to remain memorable, and there was very little confusion along the way as to who was who. Each character has a back story that we are told either by Susanna directly, or through the gossip of those who come into her store. The dresses she makes are also beautifully described, conveying just how much love goes into Susanna’s work. There are many small events that take place over the course of the novel, but no real overarching plotline. This is a book about daily life, and the little adventures people get up to along the way. Ibbotson writes simply but lyrically, with turns of phrase such as ‘that’s the trouble with guilt: it can make you suffer like nothing else but it can’t change what you do’ making me stop and think, if just for a moment.
In ‘Madensky Square’, Ibbotson catches the time and place so eloquently, that I was shocked to learn that it was published in 1988! I had never read an Ibbotson book before, but often hear people talk dreamily about how wonderful she is. I had also heard someone refer to her as their ‘comfort read’. That term seems to aptly sum up the experience of reading ‘Madensky Square’. It was not hard work to read, and yet it was so charming, that it is all but impossible not to walk away with a smile. I bought this book through the Pan Macmillan’s Bello imprint, an endeavour that aims to bring classic works that have been long out of print to a new audience through creating e-books and a print on demand service. This kind of project seems like a wonderful way to revive books that would otherwise all but disappear. After all, that is the beauty of reading: So much has been written, and will be written, that there are always new gems to find. Even if some turn out to be antiques.