Seen here with its evocative Constable edition cover, as opposed to the rather flashier NYRB edition I was so kindly lent by Simon, here is my book of the year for 2011 so far. And here's the way this stunning novel begins:
London, the crouching monster, like every other monster has to breathe, and breathe it does in its own obscure, malignant way. Its vital oxygen is composed of suburban working men and women of all kinds, who every morning are sucked up through an infinitely complicated respiratory apparatus of trains and termini into the mighty congested lungs, held there for a number of hours, and then, in the evening, exhaled violently through the same channels.
If you are saying, Hmmm, a bit Dickensian, you wouldn't be far wrong -- Patrick Hamilton does have a way of personifying things and events in a way that might remind you of the great CD. Elsewhere you might be thinking about Jane Austen -- the brilliant, sharp, satirical observation of characters in an English provincial setting perhaps owes something to her. But if you are now thinking, Oh I see, it's derivative, you couldn't be further from the truth. Hamilton is a brilliant prose stylist and a terrific observer of human beings, their quirks and their foibles and their pains and pleasures and this is a wonderfully written and completely original novel.
Published in 1947 and set in 1943, this is a story firmly fixed in wartime Britain. As the opening paragraph may suggest, it takes place not in London but in a small town named Thames Lockden (based, rather closely, on Henley on Thames). Here, in a rather seedy boarding house oddly named the Rosamund Tea Rooms, is living Miss Roach. Miss Roach? Yes indeed. She does have a first name, Enid, but she hates it, and hates even more "Eeny", the abbreviation tried out by "her" American, the drunken, warm-hearted, over-emotional GI who kisses her on a bench in the blackout and proposes -- sadly, not just to Miss Roach but, as she discovers rather late in the day, to half the young women in Oxfordshire. Miss Roach makes up part of London's "vital oxygen", for she travels there every day to her work there for a publisher, having been bombed out of her room in Kensington a year earlier. Now her home is an upstairs room lit by a feeble ceiling light, with a pink artificial silk bedspread "which shone and slithered and fell off", red check curtains which refuse to meet in the middle, a mirror "held precariously at a suitable angle by a squashed matchbox", and no bedside light.
Miss Roach is thirty-nine and neither attractive nor unattractive, but she has long ago given up "hope" (as she puts it to herself in inverted commas), so the advent into her life of Lieutenant (or rather Lootenant) Pike is both confusing and cheering. And cheering is something she is desperately in need of. For her life in the Rosamund Tea Rooms is made intensely miserable by the presence of Mr Thwaites, surely one of the most memorable characters in the whole of English literature. In his sixties but unusually healthy and virile,
in his lethargic yet watchful brown eyes, in his way of walking and his way of talking, there could be discerned the steady, self-absorbed, dreamy, almost somnambulistic quality of the lifelong trampler on the emotions of others, of what Miss Roach would call the 'bully'. That steady look with which as a child he would have torn off a butterfly's wing, with which as a boy he would have twisted another boy's wrist, with which as a man he would have humiliated a servant or inferior, was upon him as he now looked at Miss Roach; it never entirely left him.
Mr Thwaites, "who had further narrowed his mind by a considerable amount of travel abroad", has picked on Miss Roach for his own peculiar form of torture. Actually, though secretly, pro-Hitler, he chooses to associate her with the Russians ("your friends"), who he hates even though they are Britain's allies. Mr Thwaites' speech patterns are wonderfully, horrifically observed. He is fond of substituting the third person verb for the first ("I Keeps my Counsel -- like the Wise Old Bird"), is partial to hideous cod dialect ("I Hay ma Doots, as the Scotchman said"), and falls into dreadful and protracted archaisms ("She goeth, perchance, unto the coffee house...there to partake of the noxious brown fluid with her continental friends?"). Miss Roach's only continental friend -- in fact Miss Roach's only friend -- is the German born, English raised Vicki Kugelman, who is around the same age but a good deal more canny and sophisticated. Apparently friendly and congenial at first, she rapidly becomes first untrustworthy and later downright treacherous, siding with Thwaites -- who is soon grotesquely and obsessively in love with her -- to torment Miss Roach with her own brand of dreadfully faux-idiomatic English: "You must learn to be sporty, Miss Prude".
Told mainly through the perspective of Miss Roach, the novel wonderfully conveys the agonies of her delicate and well-brought-up psyche as she wrestles with the pain and hatred engendered by these two vicious and duplicitous bullies. And if that wasn't enough, I have never read a novel that so brilliantly depicts the realities of life in wartime Britain. Miss Roach scarcely knows what is happening on the war's various fronts, just skimming the headlines from time to time to see who seems to be winning. But the war is no less real to her for that:
the war was slowly, cleverly, month by month, week by week, emptying the shelves of the shops -- sneaking cigarettes from the tobacconists, sweets from the confectioners, paper, pens and envelopes from the stationers, fittings from the hardware stores, beer from the public houses, and so on endlessly -- while at the same time gradually removing crockery from the refreshment bars, railings from familar places, means of transport from the streets, accommodation from the hotels, and sitting or even standing room on the trains.
At first it seems shocking how much everyone smokes and drinks, until you realise that the River Sun, "perhaps Thames Lockden's most popular and fashionable public-house", where "the cheerul word 'OPEN' gleams dimly through transparent violet inserted in the blackout material" offers a welcome escape from the desolation of those lonely rooms and dark streets, where the only permitted dim lights gleam "like moonlight gone bad".
I could go on. But instead I must urge you to read this remarkable novel as soon as possible. I'm already onto an earlier one of Hamilton's, Craven House, and have on order a couple more. He is, or rather was, a truly exceptional writer and I can't believe he is not better known.