It has taken me a while to post on Paul Collins’ Sixpence House because I desperately want to avoid using the word ‘quaint’ as a descriptive word. Paul and his wife, Jenny, bring their baby boy, Morgan from San Francisco to Hay-on-Wye, England on a romantic idea that they can make a go of it in the town made famous by the number of booksellers per capita. The town of Hay is a book-lover’s paradise from Collins’ description, with a used bookstore on every corner, many holding the rare and antiquated finds that are the fantasy of any bibliophile.
It is a quaint tale of a book lover who went to a town that loves books. The experiences of Collins and his family are provided through a narrative that is broken up by recollections pulled from his prolific readings as Paul is reminded of some portion of a book that does not come close to entering into mass consciousness. Perhaps it was my delicate ego, but when reading his digressions I felt envy toward the depth of Collins’ memory retention of the books he had read, stuff that the majority would not care about, and that, I think, is his talent; to incorporate trivial offshoots to the main drama of finding a house in Hay.
This impressive recollection of things read aside, I got the impression that Paul was tied up in pointing out the differences between America and England in a way that made England appear backward and not as progressive as its colonial offshoot. For example, real estate agents represented sellers not buyers in England, therefore did not have to disclose things to the potential buyer about the house that they were interested in, including matters safety related. From the perspective of the Collins, of course, this is ludicrous. I do believe that this is what made the book enjoyable to me; identifying with a man and his new family placed in a situation that causes me to blanch with a great degree of discomfort. It is a lovely idea to pick up and move to a city that you think represents and reflects your core qualities. This idea quickly crashes when the realization sets in that you are not the first to recognize this opportunity held by the area. The Collinses realize that real estate in Hay does not adequately compare to what they had in San Francisco.
Again, I found myself cheering for the protagonist. I desperately wanted this family, the same which uprooted and bet everything that they could find their dreams in this quaint English town, to find and buy the house of their dreams. I suppose this is where the reader must face the cold, cold non-fiction literary genre in the face. Paul and his family excitedly look at a number of houses, including one from the 17th Century (too small), the 18th Century (too many subjects in the contract), and an old pub, Sixpence House (too much work). All of which I was able to, from my cozy, dry seat in my rented apartment, shake my head at and scoff at his lack of adventure and romanticism. Do keep in mind that his descriptions also cause one to wonder how exactly people managed to raise a family 200+ years ago.
Sixpence House certainly appeals to the avid reader, the one who hopes to find themselves a Hay-on-Wey in which to find a community of like-minded individuals to share an impressive range of literacy and bibliophilia with. It also finds a way to make use of a vast amount of knowledge regarding old text that would otherwise be lost without writing it down. While this may exist in one’s dreams, reader be warned, the reality is that life is safer, as the Collines found out, in sticking to what you know, stateside.