This book essentially takes place over a short length of time. Twenty four hours in Stella’s 24 Hour cafe. A time when two waitresses, Mona and Hannah overlap, argue with each other and crucially are made to think about their own lives. In flashbacks the reader is told about how they came to be working there, their backgrounds and something about how their lives have reached this particular point. This book is about more than just two women’s stories, however. The cafe represents a viable community point which is open day and night to anyone. Its alternative decor, the informal set up, the fact that anyone can and does walk in for hours or minutes, all mean that it provides a sanctuary and a potential meeting point. If you have ever watched people in a public space and wondered what their story is, this book is for you. Lots of short stories, quick portraits, glimpses of lives combine against a background of a non judgemental background to make up a fascinating narrative. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.
Stella’s cafe is not huge, and can be managed with one chef and one or two waitresses. It offers a choice of seating, and welcomes the well off, the office worker, and the Big Issue seller from outside. Its position opposite a main line station in a busy part of London means that it can have regulars who know that they can find food, drink and a warm dry place both day and night. It can also welcome those who discover it by accident, waiting for a train, sheltering from the elements, simply looking for a place to be.
London is a multicultural place, full of those in transit, seeking something or someone special. Both Mona and Hannah are working there on a part time, flexible basis to allow them to attend auditions and perform in a variety of settings. Both having reached the age of thirty, they are wondering if their moment has passed. Mona is a dancer, having come to London from Argentina where her parents not only split up, but moved to separate continents. Hannah is a trained singer from Wales, her parents being very much together and concerned about their only child. Both have grown up with their ambition to succeed on stage in London, but time and experience have made them acknowledge the strength of the challenges against them. The significance of their overlapping at work and their relationship outside the cafe is a main theme of this novel.
Other characters come and go. One of the most touching is a young student, struggling financially and emotionally, who attracts the sympathetic notice of others. Couples with backstories discover things about their relationships in the cafe, as the decorations and atmosphere offer time and space to revelate their lives.
This is a delicious book with much to offer in terms of characters and setting. It is timely in terms of running several stories at once like a contemporary television story, yet the unifying characters of Mona and Hannah are strong and carry the narrative’s momentum.