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The Slaves of Solitude

by Patrick Hamilton

The year is 1943 and there is a let-up in the bombing of London. Our heroine, Miss Roach, has left her bombed-out flat and now resides in the incongruously named Rosamund Tea Rooms, a boarding house in the fictitious Thames Lockdon – typical of any of the small towns along the Thames, west of London. The solitude in which she and several other lonely characters reside is profound and altogether rather sad. Among the other residents are genteel Miss Steel and Mrs Barratt (no-one has first names), the enigmatic Mr Prest, and, the overbearing Mr Thwaites, as awful a character as I have ever encountered in a novel. Mr Thwaites holds court nightly in the dining room and harangues Miss Roach relentlessly about her “communist” tendencies – but when an American Lieutenant and his colleague start to take supper at the tea rooms, everything changes.

Lieutenant Pike is a genial sort who wants to liven things up a bit. He forms a friendship with the thirty-nine year old Miss Roach which soon becomes a romance and the talk of the tea rooms. The Lieutenant (or “Lootenant” as Mr Thwaites will have him) entertains Miss Roach by taking her out to the pub where eye-watering amounts of whisky and “gin and French” are consumed. The stark contrast to the grey quiet life in the tea rooms is remarkable and Miss Roach allows herself some pleasure and quiet thoughts about “love” and “marriage” (so tentative is she that she thinks these thoughts in inverted commas).

Enter the cat amongst the pigeons - the German, Vicki Kugelmann. Miss Roach befriended Vicki at a time when a German in London – no matter that she’d lived there for many years - needed all the friends she could get. But Vicki does not repay her friend with gratitude and the stoical Miss Roach needs all of her emotional reserves to deal with the storm to come.

This wonderful book, written between 1943 and 1946, is not obviously about the war. For the residents of the tea rooms the war means loneliness, contemplation and deprivation. On rationing, Miss Roach reflects: “The war, which had begun by making dramatic and drastic demands, which had held up the public in style like a highwayman, had now developed into a petty pilferer, incessantly pilfering. You never knew where you were with it, and you could not look round without finding something else gone or going.” For the single, thirty-nine year old, it is not just about rationing but about the course of life itself. Finally, Miss Roach returns to London where, paradoxically, she feels safe. She is back in the centre of things, the world and the war – “squaring up to it”.

The depth of emotion, the quality of writing and, significantly, the observation of character in this book are all remarkable and in Miss Roach, Patrick Hamilton has created a true heroine. Read a profile of this under-appreciated author on our interview page.

Irene Haynes

Published by Constable & Robinson – 327 pp

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