The Room of Lost Things

Issue section: 

Stella Duffy, Virago; £7.99

Stella Duffy loves cities and loves London. One of her characters reflects on "how he never wants to live anywhere where they sell only one nationality of food, where the shopkeepers all have the same accent". I know what he means. Often I feel a sigh of relief returning to London after time spent in a maybe beautiful but (being polite here) often mono-cultural area of rural England.

Not to say that there isn't a down-side to city life, but it's refreshing to read a book which celebrates the places, the atmosphere, the people.

The novel, set in and around a dry-cleaning shop under the railway arches in south London, charts the developing relationship between Robert, the shop's owner, and Akeel who wants to buy it. Robert's shop counter has something of the "confessional" about it: people simultaneously drop off their clothes and shed their secrets. But while he is the custodian of other people's secrets, close-lipped, he guards his own - until, in revealing the "room of lost things" to Akeel, Robert's own story slowly begins to unfold.

In this microcosm of society different characters emerge. Issues of class, race, gender and politics are central to the narrative, but not through the creation of stereotypes. Duffy carefully lays bare her characters' thoughts and emotions, and with a light touch slips in a development in the plot almost as an afterthought. It's an interesting style and often witty.

I found the understatement and the humour of this atmospheric book very engaging. Readers will recognise some of their contemporary London in its pages.