Wednesday, 6 May 2009

The Room of Lost Things by Stella Duffy

After having read a few good reviews of The Room of Lost Things, I saw it on the library shelves when I was looking for something else. I didn't get what I actually went in for, but I am so glad i came away with this because it was brilliant.

But where to start? The basic premise? Robert Sutton owns a dry cleaner's shop in London. This shop was previously his mother's, then they worked it together, then finally Robert ended up running the business alone. Nearing retirement age, Robert is tired and realises he needs to sell the business, and grudgingly takes on Akeel, an ambitious young graduate with grand plans, to work with him, and eventually buy the business from him, but only when Robert feels he is ready to move on. The differences between these two men, the old and the new are apparent fro the start, but the unlikely friendship that develops between them brings them closer together and changes them both, and brings them bot to a closer understanding of themselves and where they fit in the world.

Ok, next is the title. The Room of Lost Things refers to the room above the shop where Alice, then Robert have meticulously stored, boxed and catalogued everything that has been removed from the pockets of items brought in for cleaning over the years they have been running the shop. And everything means everything from shopping lists to wedding speeches! All neatly filed in boxes organised by the years they were left. A life in other peoples forgotten history!

History and other people also play an important part in this novel. Although centred on dry cleaners in Loughborough junction, London, the story is scattered with the lives of other people who pass through the dry cleaners and its surroundings during their daily lives. Robert knows all about these people, from watching them, brief conversations, and from the items they've left in their pockets over the years. There's Helen, the Australian nanny, who longs to go home, but can't break free from her London lover, Stephan, a homosexual dance teacher, Marilyn, the health visitor, the poet who sings on the bus, and Dan and Charlie, the homeless guys who spend their lives on the disused sofa behind the shop (doesn't everyone know a place were there's an old discarded sofa)! That is one of the beauties of this book, everyone can recognise the people and places from this story from their lives, even if you don't live in London, which I don't.

History, specifically, Robert's history runs throughout this book. Through his own memories of his years in the shop, and his conversations with Akeel about the shop and the customers, we learn about his life. There is a melancholic feeling running throughout the book, Robert's life is burdened with some great secret, which is what has tied him to the shop all these years, and what makes him reluctant to leave. It becomes apparent early on, that he no longer has contact with his wife and daughter, but the reason for this is not revealed until the end, and is so heartbreaking, I had to stop thinking about it. For anyone who's read this, I had no sympathy with the daughter, I don't know if I was supposed to!

I think everything in this novel was done brilliantly. The descriptions build up a real concrete picture of life in this small area of London, the individual characters that thread throughout the story are so real and they cross each others paths frequently, but this never seems contrived, always natural and realistic. And the idea of a dry cleaners being the quiet, unseen hub of a community, without that community even knowing it is fantastic. I can't really praise this enough, and it is my best book of the year so far, easily!

Just as an afterthought, for anyone who has read this, I really wanted to say something about the keys, but I didn't really know what I thought about that bit!


Jackie (Farm Lane Books) said...

I keep hearing great things about Stella Duffy - I'll have to make sure I get hold of a copy of this soon.

Dot said...

I really enjoyed your review, I have only ever heard good things about Stella Duffy! I have her book State of Happiness waiting to be read now The Room of Lost Things will have to be added to my wish list too!

Jo said...

Jackie, I hope you enjoy it when you do read it!

Dot, I've only ever heard good things too. I picked up state of Happiness from the library when I took this back, an I hope I like that one as much.