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Decades of excellence: review of ‘Bloomsbury 35’

In September 1986, four well-known publishing professionals in the UK came together to set up an independent publishing company that would be devoted to editorial excellence and originality as well as high standards in production and design. Five days after it announced its arrival, Bloomsbury was at the Frankfurt Book fair, even though it did not have a single book to showcase. “The industry came to visit the Frankfurt stand in fascination that the five-day-old publisher had only quarter bottles of Bollinger to offer, but no books yet,” writes Nigel Newton, one of the founders, in the preface to Bloomsbury 35, which commemorates the publishing house’s incredible journey in the world of letters.

By early 1987, Bloomsbury had its lists well under way and would begin to publish authors such as Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Nadine Gordimer, John Irving, Joanna Trollope and so on. Many of them would go on to win top literary prizes, including the Booker, the Pulitzer and the Nobel. This book zooms in on some of the finest and most significant works that Bloomsbury has brought out in the last 35 years and presents a riveting collection of extracts from them.

Of course, the editors rue the fact that it gives readers a taste of only the adult fiction that Bloomsbury has published, and that constraints of space forced them to leave out glimpses from other genres such as non-fiction and poetry or even one of its most stupendous successes, the magical Harry Potter books by JK Rowling.

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Bloomsbury 35 contains all the usual suspects — there are extracts from the works of such literary heavyweights as Abdulrazak Gurnah (winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature) and George Saunders, William Boyd, and others, and from best-selling authors such as Khaled Hosseini and Elizabeth Gilbert (she of the Eat Pray Love fame). And you get that feeling of pleasurable familiarity when, for example, you re-engage with Atwood’s masterful Booker-winning novel-within-a-novel, The Blind Assassin, or briefly warm yourself in the heat of the protagonist’s passion for his mistress in Ondaatje’s The English Patient (also a Booker Prize winner), or when you sink your teeth once again into a slice of the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s racy, disruptive and utterly uproarious confessional, Kitchen Confidential.

But the book doesn’t just serve up some carefully curated literary amuse-bouches. Its real delight is in the thrilling sense of discovery it offers. You may well have read all or most of the books whose extracts have been corralled between its covers. But for the rest, it provides compelling snapshots of works that one may not have come across, or even if one has, not got around to reading. There are some glittering swatches of prose here, and promises of intriguing tales. And they are certain to whet your appetite for more and lead you to the books themselves.

Bloomsbury 35
Edited by Liz Calder and Alexandra Pringle

A Case of Knives is one such. In the space of a few pages, the piece from this 1988 novel by Candia Williams manages to pull you right into its mesmeric heart, its prose scintillant, its posh and elegant characters vibrating with darkness and complexity. Indeed, whether it is Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, or No Other Life by Brian Moore, and many more, the extracts are no less than portals that promise to transport the reader to breathtaking literary experiences.

Bloomsbury 35 is not a book to be consumed in a gulp. It is to be slowly relished, extract by extract, morsel by morsel. Some will fail to strike a chord. But many will set off glimmerings of a greater want. Perhaps you will read up a little more on whatever speaks to you and arouses your curiosity. Perhaps you will end up ordering a book or three. I know I did. In other words, Bloomsbury 35 is not merely a collector’s item — it is also a triumph of the publisher’s bookselling nous.

The reviewer is a journalist and author.

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Printable version | Aug 2, 2022 5:06:35 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/book-review-bloomsbury-35-publishing-liz-calder-alexandra-pringle-nigel-newton/article65684318.ece