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.       

No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym – Love researched and explored

No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym

 

Dulcie is heading towards being an older spinster.  Disappointed in love, she now lives a quiet life in her late parents’ house in an unfashionable, even distant suburb of London. As with many other books, some of whose characters turn up in this novel, there is another woman who feels the sadness of love. These are not tragedies, as Dulcie’s new aquaintance Viola elegantly suffers the frustrations of unrequited love, and Laurel discovers the possibilities. There is an absurd man in the form of Dr Alwyn Forbes, impressed with himself, yet always wondering about the women around him. There is also a clergyman, floating around in a tatty cassock, not quite getting the point. This 1961 novel is full of the light touches of women working within their worlds, but this is a book which goes further afield than some of the others into areas of London that have associations for characters that prove to be otherwise, as well as a further journey of discovery for some, which provide a meeting of plot as well as some of the central people of the story. This is a book of realistic clothes, disappointing meals, indexing and researching, of odd books turning up and paintings which typify life. A gentle book of confusions, embarrassments, and little hints of the lives of women and some men as they contemplate others and their expectations. A book of acute observations and faded lives, this is a slightly sadder novel in Pym’s output, but still captures something of Dulcie’s curiosity about those around her, beyond the indexes.

 

The novel begins with three characters all slightly out of their comfort zone. Dulcie is attending a conference of those who work in publishing, but not those who have the glamour of racy bestselling novels, but rather the mechanics of indexes, of editing and small bits of research. She meets the languid Viola, an admirer of Alwyn, possibly affecting even his marriage to the disappointing Marjorie, whose interest in the conference centred around his scheduled lecture, “Some problems of an editor”. It is notable that more than one of the lectures is entitled “Some Problems of…”, as if the important but unexciting topics of indexes and editing are apologetically handled. The evening meal, as many of the carefully described meals throughout the book, is colourless and unexciting, even though Dulcie and to an extent Viola have some hopes of it.

 

The relationships as established at the conference go forwards into the rest of the novel, as other characters are discovered rather than firmly laid down, and is propelled by Dulcie’s gentle researches and accidental discoveries. Her hopes for her young niece Laurel’s influence on her rather quiet home do not come to pass in the way she expected, whereas her unexpected lodger becomes a vague partner in her unusual researches into the life and times of a man for whom a small stone squirrel  becomes a talisman of a past time and attraction. The set pieces of Dulcie’s unwilling witnessing of a sort of confrontation, of a shy florist who takes surprising action, and a dinner party which brings together some strange friends all contribute to a life where a particular form of love will not be returned, but nothing is impossible. 

 

This is a Pym that Husband acquired because I couldn’t find any more on my double banked and tough to access books. As I mentioned before, I’m struggling to access A – H because of my daughter’s house contents being shoved in that room. The limited space for the letter P is stuffed rather full with Ellis Peters (especially Brother Cadfael) Elizabeth Peters (Amelia Peabody) and Jean Plaidy (many, many historical novels) . I am still searching for Pym – maybe they are being shy and retiring….?

Jack and Bet by Sarah Butler – life, love and living in cities in a gentle novel

 

This is the story of four people who are changed and challenged by a marriage that has lasted for seventy years, and a London that is changing on a daily basis. As they move through this beautifully written story together, other people and the places in which they live have a huge impact. This is about the places people inhabit, the destruction of homes, and how the impact of rooms and memories affect people’s expectations. With characters of a great age there is always some sadness for past choices and limited futures, but there is still a lot here of hope, humour and opportunities. This story is written with  keen insight into the lives of those on the edge; the elderly couple, the immigrant and the much married man trying to do his best in his opinion. I found it a lovely engaging read, full of genuine feeling for an elderly couple who are close yet each with their own views. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this gentle yet powerful book. 

 

“Jack Chalmers was a man of few words, married to a woman of many”. He takes a daily walk to the Elephant and Castle shopping centre, leaving his wife Bet in their “new” flat  in which they have lived for five years since their estate has been demolished. While Jack had fought against the destruction, he has been forced to accept it, like he did being in the army during the latter part of the Second World War, and other  aspects of his life which will emerge later. Bet waits at home, having difficulty with the basics of life, but set on having a party to celebrate their seventieth wedding anniversary. Jack meets a young woman, Marinela, a student from Romania who is studying photography, and she happily offers to take photographsat the party.  Meanwhile Tommy, their son, is keen to make changes in his parents’ lives. He wants them to go into a home where they could have continuous care, but they are reluctant to give up their flat and independence, even though they miss their old home with its views and memories. When Bet’s secret is revealed, Marinela has the opportunity to move from her uncomfortable room into a more spacious flat. She has a secret life working to support herself, and many memories of her family in Romania. When an old love surprises her, she has to rethink a lot about her life.

 

The characters that Butler has created in this contemporary novel are genuine and sincere. Jack and Bet have so many memories, and so many of them together, yet Bet in particular has a significant alternative story of choices made and roads not travelled. This is a book of kindness, but also the realities  of contemporary life in London, with all of the squeeze on housing. It is about people making the best of what life offers them, and finding true love against the odds. Although tinged with sadness, I truly enjoyed this book and would recommend it as a gentle read that reveals life in our cities with real impact. 

 

This book is a real celebration of the lives of older people, and is such a lovely story. The cover of the edition that I read is so clever, with lots of little hints about the story. Great design!

 

Attend by West Camel – Deptford, Deborah, Reality and Fantasy

A novel of harsh reality, complex relationships and a hint of fantasy, “Attend” is a novel which draws the reader in, messes with her mind, then leaves a shock. It is the story of people with a past, sometimes difficult, sometimes tragic, and the vulnerable present that they find themselves in as they look around Deptford. This is a contemporary book, but the persistent fantasy is of someone who can look back for over a century, and does so in acts of compulsive storytelling. As characters are forced to examine themselves and what is truly going on around them they discover not only their weaknesses but also their strengths, even if that discovery comes at a high cost. It is a faithful insight into the drab loneliness of solo lives, lived on the edge of others’ preoccupations. I am grateful for the opportunity to experience this unusual book as it is first published.

Anne has returned to a place she knows well, perhaps too well, as she is confronted with a family she has in some senses abandoned, amidst the buildings, pathways and places she can remember with painful clarity. It is when she is at her lowest, when the memories crowd in, that she is first confronted by the mysterious character of Deborah. Without beginning or end, she conjures up a world of mystery, remembered things, and endless sewing.

Sam is a troubled young man of secrets and deceptions, as he tries to continue a world of encounters with men that leave him dissatisfied. He too lives in a drab world, challenged by the actions of others, all too aware of the dangers inherent in his lifestyle. He too meets Deborah, as he alternates saving her and being saved by her, drawn in by her fantastic stories and yet beyond puzzled the unlikely tales, he develops in courage and begins to discover what is important.

The characters in this book are satisfactorily multi dimensional, as even a small baby is given a role as a challenge for Anne. Dark comedy and soap opera type emotion is combined with a literary style that lifts this book away from romantic drama, especially in those moments concerning the elusive Deborah. The subject matter, of drug use, twisted friendship and danger makes this a powerful novel, yet the presence of Deborah somehow gives it an ethereal element. Not that she always has a positive story to tell, as she recalls wartime London. As even buildings and roads seem to move with her words, Anne and Sam have to discover how to survive and live in the world.

This is an impressive novel, confidently written with an eye to the visual as well as the emotional experience of the characters. A strongly written book, with powerful events and challenging conflicts, this is memorable and compelling reading. The confusing details of a mysterious life are put up against the reality of everyday life with the small touches of clothes, daily routine, as even the inaccessibility of Deborah’s home becomes familiar. This is a book which poses many questions, but is also a compelling narrative. An impressive and challenging debut, Camel’s characterisation is well developed and mature throughout this memorable book.

I have spent much of the last 24 hours writing and sorting out Christmas cards. We have moved so often (ten times!) that we send cards to people in several places, and so we had to find not only a Post Office to dispatch (late running ) cards abroad, but also to buy an eye watering number of second class stamps. After some Christmas shopping in a selection of very individual shops at Cromford Mill, Derbyshire, we tried to post the cards (having put the stamps on in a cafe!) only to discover a shortage of post boxes with adjacent parking. Tomorrow we must put our artificial tree up with help, as well as sing in a concert. Such fun!