Lost Property by Helen Paris – a young woman wants to organise loss in a sophisticated and enjoyable contemporary tale

Lost Property by Helen Paris

Dot Watson is a very particular person. Her work in the Lost Property office in London means that she accepts all the items that people have left behind,  disregarded, or simply lost on various forms of transport across London. Labelling such objects correctly and placing them in the well ordered stacks is very satisfying; returning the correct item to someone pleases her even more, like a miniature mystery solved. She is always methodical in her life, wearing a uniform of her own devising, carefully avoiding social events and trying to reduce what could be chaos into a manageable lifestyle. As this young woman narrates her own story, events begin to create more challenges that cannot be controlled, and her sense of loss begins to overwhelm her.

 This novel of contemporary life looks at family, secrets and lies, how women in particular make choices that define their own and others’ lives, and how loss of special relationships can affect everything. While not the first novel of a lonely young woman whose life is restricted by the past, this is a sophisticated and unmelodramatic book that brings out so much about every character, even the minor contributors, and the importance of objects. Paris is so skilled in capturing how objects can evoke a person, a memory, an emotion. As she tells the story of Dot, her memories and her relationship with her parents and sister, the freedom of a past life, this very human story endues objects with a life that is more than the debris of the unwanted, instead making even mundane items take on importance. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this enjoyable book.

The novel opens with a prologue, describing how a thoughtful Dot is sometimes to be found paying “attention to details”, and “staring at the rows and rows of loss”. She had once wanted to be a librarian, keeping tickets safe, ordering books, obeying rules. She has made looking after lost property a vocation, in contrast with her colleagues, who temporarily mislay things, mess up the system, are not interested in the imperative to keep things safe. As the novel progresses we are told of Dot’s mother, forgetting reality and the daughters who make decisions for her. Philippa is her older sister, with her wealthy husband and perfect children. She too has a passion for order, for cleanliness, for sorting out people. Despairing of Dot, eager to deal with her mother on her own terms, Philippa is the would be matchmaker who is keen to organize people rather than objects.  Dot treasures memories of her father, the two of them having imaginary adventures, solving memories in the way of earlier residents of Baker Street. A traumatic memory, a secret life and the determination to reunite a person with their treasured objects causes Dot to swerve from her course and discover more.

This is a carefully written book which brings the character of Dot as she narrates her experiences alive. Paris has succeeded in explaining an arcane system  which mainly predates computers through the eyes of someone who understands the importance of order. She is so good at describing the layers of objects, the small details that makes the difference between apparently similar umbrellas, bags and the everyday things that tell stories in a detective like manner. It is a touching picture of a mother who has become confused, lost and distant from those who remember and love her. I particularly enjoyed Paris’ description of a silent London hinting at the past, of how “the city reveals the layers of its history”, of the people who walked there over the century. This is a very readable book which offers real insights into a woman’s life and has hints of realistic humour in its relaxed style.