Title: The Slaves of Solitude
Author: Patrick Hamilton
Publisher: New York Review Books
Device: Trade Paper
For a plot summary
“She was not, she saw, really cut out for small-town, boarding-house life during a war.”[i]
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I am so glad to have participated in the #1947Club that introduced me to an author I probably would not have known about otherwise.
The book takes place during World War II and reveals its effect on the residents of the Rosamund Tea Rooms, a boarding house located in the fictional town of Thames Lockdon, on the outskirts of London. The continual threat of German bombs raining down has caused people to flee the city and into many small town boarding houses such as this where intimate living among unrelated people causes chaos and crises. Luckily for Miss Roach (don’t call her Enid), who travels each day to her publishing house job in London her daily commute is a respite from the drama of the boarding house and in particular the torment waged against her by Mr. Thwaites, who has made her his meal-time verbal punching bag to the dismay of not only herself, but the other residents as well.
Into this scene two American soldiers arrive who have contracted with Mrs. Payne the boarding house owner, to eat lunch when they are in town. One of them sets his sights on Miss Roach, who is startled but flattered at the possibilities and they begin a romance of sorts, spending most of their time at the bar in the River Sun public house where their relationship is fueled by too much gin and homesickness.
Added to this is the arrival of Miss Roach’s friend, Vicki Kugelmann, a German native and long-time resident of Britain who moves into the boarding house and completely disrupts the hierarchy of power and the rules and rituals of behavior. The dysfunction starts immediately at Vicki’s first meal in the dining room where she humors Mr. Thwaites’s pokes and put downs of Miss Roach, instead of defending her. And ends with her slow encroachment on the relationship Miss Roach has with her American Lieutenant, Dayton Pike, which culminates in a kissing three-some on a bench in the park. Miss Roach is blessedly rescued from this torment and inexcusable behavior by the inheritance from a dying aunt and moves back to London, her fear of bombs notwithstanding.
The book captured me from the opening pages. The physical action takes place mostly in the public rooms of the boarding house dining room and lounge, and the River Sun bar. But in my opinion, the real action takes place in the minds of the characters in how they think and feel about each other, what hurts them and what they long for. In that regard, Patrick Hamilton’s writing style reminds me of The House of the Seven Gables; not the story of course, but in the way Nathaniel Hawthorne’s characters ruminate about their lives. Even so, one of the most delightful aspects of The Slaves of Solitude is the humor and the many times I laughed out loud. One example,
The sky had cleared outside, and the sun, low in the sky, now shone into the room with the peculiar yellow brilliance which only a winter sun can achieve. In this hard and revealing light Mr. Thwaites succeeded in looking more immaculately clean and radiantly healthy than ever. There was not even any hope for Miss Roach that Mr. Thwaites would ever die.[ii]
I also found some historical aspects of the book interesting, most especially in how the war made possible a change in how people lived together and socialized; that bars and public houses that had always been places where men met up with friends to get food and the latest news, was now opened to middle class women for the same reasons. Hamilton makes readers aware of the war’s effect on society as it dragged on and the material elements of daily life became scarce and their diminishment wore everyone down. Miss Roach observes that after people got used to the first great demands on their material possessions, each day found one more item gone from shop shelves and so “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.”[iii]
I noticed other books by Patrick Hamilton on the library’s bookshelf and I imagine I will be back for more.