The Room of Lost Things – Stella Duffy (2009)

I really enjoyed this book. It is packed with lots of characters who each have a different story that gets picked up now and again, so that you can get a strong sense of the community that exists in this area of South London.

Having visited London quite frequently when I was growing up, and now almost annually when I travel home to England, Duffy’s descriptions of a real-life gritty piece of the city was wonderful: she took full advantage of describing the senses as she describes a walk down the main shopping street, and even incidental characters (such as a couple of alcoholics who share a discarded sofa) play a role.

The story revolves around Robert who owns a dry cleaning business, but is thinking about retiring. However, nothing concrete has been set until a young man, Akeel, walks into the shop and asks about being taught the business with a view to potentially taking it over. Robert has lived in this area of London all his life, and has seen the evolution of the community with its influx of immigrants and the changing row of shops. Robert is like the city: tough, gritty, difficult to get to know, but has a lot of secrets.

Akeel, the young go-getter who wants to take over the shop, is an ambitious guy of Pakistani descent, but who has mostly been raised in London (except on the east side). As the book progresses, the relationship between Akeel and Robert blossoms, although not without a few misunderstandings along the way. Akeel is highly aware of the delicate nature of the business: Robert’s mum started the business, and when she died, he took it over. So it’s a bit touchy at times.

In the back of the shop is a room of lost-and-found things which Robert has found left in people’s pockets and has been keeping for years: shopping lists, keys, best man speeches etc. All have a home in an organized filing system, and Robert keeps it up out of respect for his mum and wife who started the whole thing. It is this room that provides a key for Akeel to start opening the multiple secrets that Robert keeps, and the Akeel himself has.

As I mentioned, the book is stuffed with memorable characters: Marilyn the social worker who has an insatiable appetite for food and only wants to help her clients; the old Mrs. Patricia Ryan who realizes that she is forgetting more and more but feels powerless to change that even though Marilyn does her best to help her; Stefan, the aging gay Lothario who realizes that perhaps he does really want a committed relationship after all… Everyone has secrets which they do not share with each other.

I would also argue that the street itself is almost one of the characters – it’s the main artery along which many of the characters traverse; most of the action happens either on the street or in a business or home just off the street; the 345 bus that drives along it every day with the singing prophet inside…

I think what also helped make this a stellar reading experience was that I happened to be reading it at the same time as the English riots were happening in London and other places. The nightly broadcasting of the people who were rioting and looting and the overall disaffection that surfaced seemed to bring another layer of detail to the plot, as Robert’s neighborhood seemed as though it may have been a potential area for that sort of unrest – unemployment, disaffected youth, elements of racism and homophobia etc.  Despite all these negative characteristics, the neighborhood maintains its way as it has done for hundreds of years.

Another excellent bit of the story was the ending – it’s very open-ended (which I adore) and in fact, Duffy offers you a choice of two alternate endings.  This is a really really good book – it made me smile, it made me almost cry, and it made me homesick for England.

Duffy has written quite a few other novels, but the only one I had read previously was “State of Happiness” which, I have to say, was not half as good as this one. I would be interested in finding more of her work and will be curious as to how that third choice reads.

So – good book with unforgettable characters, excellent descriptions and a few surprises along the way that will blow your socks off.

I read this one second-hand from UK.

The Sea – John Banville

A short but intense novel about Max, a middle-aged man who goes back to his childhood holiday home when his wife dies of cancer.  The protagonist wants to revisit his childhood memories by staying in the house where a very influential family lived when he was a kid. The family had two twin children, a boy and a girl, who were absolutely hideous in how they behaved with Max on holiday, and this book explores his memories of how he felt treated by the family.

Lyrically written, it’s a slow read and Banville had a different style of writing, employing long sentences with numerous comma splices (grammar nerd alert), but once you got used to his lengthy sentences, they worked well.

The actual plot was well arranged: the twins with whom Max makes friends (only to find out that they are really awful when together), the mother of the twins (with whom Max falls in adolescent love), the father in the family. Plus there is a really good twist at the end with a few characters which I did not see coming. (Love that when it works.)

Lovely descriptions of the seaside, but more of a psychological description really – how it all felt, how the characters felt. Not too much physical description.

Stunning vocabulary range, although I would probably dread having a conversation with him if he knows this many words. Some of words I needed to look up: cerements, rufous, rubescent, craquelured, groynes, blench, coevals, horrent, cinereal, anabasis, vituperation, prelapsarian, anaglypta, glair, ovine, homunculus, soughing, plangent, apercus, crepitant, refection, casuistry, mephitic, caducous, congeries, crepitant… Phew. I thought I was quite well read, but I have not heard of many of these words. Smackdown.

This enormous vocabulary did start to smell of showing off after a while, and it really slowed down the reading of the book, plot-wise, as I pondered the definition and meaning of the more unusual words (which were not always clear from context).

Another bonus: it’s a book about twins (except these two are really horrible).

More of a broccoli book than anything; hard work to complete, but done with satisfaction.

Man Booker Prize winner in 2005.