So my first 'meeting' with Stella Duffy was the Virago birthday celebration at the du Maurier LitFest last May and I decided that any author who could laugh like that probably wrote good books too and I'd have to read them.
Now I wish I hadn't taken quite so long getting around to it because The Room of Lost Things Stella's latest novel has been such a precious reading experience I now can't wait to read the lot.
This is London in all its twenty-first century glory and I will be interested to hear how non-Londoners react to this book.
You may recall I read the much-vaunted Netherland by Joseph O'Neill and fell flat on my face at all the New Yorkery. I've never been to New York and Netherland for all it's undoubted skill and deftness left me feeling sadly excluded from a city that it must be possible to know something of from the pages of a book. None of which may have been Joseph O'Neill's intention of course so we won't hold that against him.
I am familiar enough with the London of old, far less so with the London of today but I think Stella Duffy has miraculously scraped off the veneer, all the old layers and layers of polish and varnish burrowing beneath the surface to give me the essence of the city through Loughborough Junction. I think the place resounds and echoes with familiarity whether you know London or not.
Robert Sutton has decided the time has come to retire, to hand over the perchlorethylene along with the keys and the premises and move on from the South London dry cleaning business he has run for years inheriting from his mother Alice before him.
Doesnt that sound boring?
Do not be deceived because what plays out is a little microcosm of London lives, ordinary people, many of them from an older generation coping with the influx of the new and holding onto that fading sense of community, lives spread right across the spectrum.
Akeel Khan, the young Muslim who Robert plans to sell the business to, Patricia ageing and coping with her increasing forgetfulness, Dean the wide - boy now feeling the pressures of life flitting 'twixt the Brixton and the Peckham firms, Stefan the dance instructor coping with the homophobic locals, Helen the young Australian Nanny. Then there's the poet come prophet who rides all day on the number 345 bus, Charlie and Dan who live on the old sofa under the arches and wait for it...Marilyn, the HEALTH VISITOR!!!
Not only are health visitors an increasingly endangered species out there in the workplace but they seem to be invisible in fiction too. I only know of two other books with a fully formed health visitor character and not just a bit part, on reflection that literary dearth quite strange because health visitors are actually very interesting people :-)
Robert's shop acting for many as one of the little hubs of day to day life and Robert of course knows and understands far more about his customers than they realise because clothes have pockets and you'd be amazed at what gets left in pockets.
The Room of Lost Things is one of those books to savour not scoff down in a matter of hours and I spent an age reading it knowing full well I didn't want it to end, because the residents of Loughborough Junction had quickly inveigled me into their lives and that old familiar London feeling ruled.
There is a pervading sense of unspoken grief and loss woven into Robert's life, that room of lost things is as much locked inside Robert's mind as it is in reality, the room above the shop where he stores all the pocket finds.
That sense of melancholy barely a fingertip's reach away to me as I read.
The revelation as befits a man who superficially at least appears sanguine and pragmatic was gradual, often unspoken and in the end deeply tragic and on reflection heartbreakingly so, if only for the fact that this was a millstone that Robert had carried around his neck for many years. Stella Duffy handles all this with a precision that quite defies the laws of narrative, that sleight of pen again, you can't quite figure how it's done.
So much more I could say about this wonderful read but you'd be here until tomorrow, though I will add reading it alongside London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins has made for a brilliant duo, but have no fear, Virago have three copies of The Room of Lost Things ready and waiting to send to three lucky winners here.
Names in comments as usual and Rocky has agreed to be Dick Whittington's cat for the prize draw.
And as if all that wasn't enough, Stella Duffy has very kindly agreed to submit to the penetrating glare of the standard lamp and do 'dovegreyreader asks...' very soon so that's us sorted.
Prize draw entry now closed