Stella Duffy seems everywhere at the moment, whether appearing on The Book Quiz (what a wonderful laugh she has) or being interviewed by dovegreyreader. I’d never read any of her books before and I simply loved The Room of Lost Things. How could I not? It’s set close to my old stamping ground south of the river which, like Stella Duffy, I am happy to defend against regions north. I loved the geography of the book; loved travelling with Akeel from Blackfriars to Loughborough Junction or with the mad poet on the 345 bus. The setting is so real that you could go right now to Google Street View and take a virtual walk down Coldharbour Lane, where at some time each of the book’s disparate characters has business.
This is pure London, ever in flux, with old street patterns, old buildings, hidden rivers overlain by the modern lives of the current, temporary occupants. Old and new is rather a theme of the book; I was reminded quite strongly of Graham Swift’s Last Orders, set on The Old Kent Road. Robert Sutton is in his sixties, has lived his life in the same place and for most of that time has been running the dry cleaning business inherited from his mother. Now, he wants to retire and the business is to be sold to Akeel, an ambitious young Moslem man born in Bow. The relationship between the two men, the conversations they have over the cleaning and pressing and the back story of each which emerges are touching. There’s not exactly a feel-good ending but you can’t help hoping that in forty years time Akeel will be there, handing on the torch. This is a book about the city, a book to gladden the hearts of Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair. One of its most vivid characters, Robert’s mother Alice, is dead before the story starts but I rate this a life-enhancing book.