What’s it all about?:
England in the middle of World War II, a war that seems fated to go on forever, a war that has become a way of life. Heroic resistance is old hat. Everything is in short supply, and tempers are even shorter. Overwhelmed by the terrors and rigors of the Blitz, middle-aged Miss Roach has retreated to the relative safety and stupefying boredom of the suburban town of Thames Lockdon, where she rents a room in a boarding house run by Mrs. Payne. There the savvy, sensible, decent, but all-too-meek Miss Roach endures the dinner-table interrogations of Mr. Thwaites and seeks to relieve her solitude by going out drinking and necking with a wayward American lieutenant. Life is almost bearable until Vicki Kugelmann, a seeming friend, moves into the adjacent room. That’s when Miss Roach’s troubles really begin.
Recounting an epic battle of wills in the claustrophobic confines of the boarding house, Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude, with a delightfully improbable heroine, is one of the finest and funniest books ever written about the trials of a lonely heart.
What did I think?:
I have never read any Patrick Hamilton before, and I ask myself why? It was absolutely fantastic. When this came up as a book group choice I was eager to read it and so glad I eventually have. I must say it has one of the best opening paragraphs ever in the history of book openings:
“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.”
Our reluctant heroine, Miss Roach, is working for a publisher in London and has been bombed out of her rooms in Kensington, leaving her no choice but to take up a room in a boarding house in Thames Lockton. When we meet her, she is a miserable, lonely creature, who dreads her return to the boarding house each night, as she has to deal with the hideous Mr Thwaites, a brash, rude and bully of a man who delights in making Miss Roach uncomfortable. Indeed, he seems to have a bit of a vendetta against her and will go to any lengths to embarrass and humiliate her. This is made worse, when Miss Roach comes into contact with an American Lieutenant (Pike), and a German girl, Vicki whom she has be-friended, sympathising with the way she is often treated due to her race, and offering her companionship in the troubled times. Vicki however, is not all she appears to be, neither is “her” Lieutenant, and Miss Roach finds herself becoming increasingly more isolated, angry, and full of despair at her circumstances.
I admired the way in which Patrick Hamilton paints us a picture of war-time Britain, yet without talking in great detail about bombs falling, or the fighting, he highlights a small area of solitude and hopelessness (the boarding house). The residents seem to go about their daily activity, completing mundane tasks with an aura of desperation and sadness at the times they are living in, with little hope of things getting better. However, the author continues to lighten the tone at times with an element of humour – Mr Thwaites booming speeches and mix of dialect are both entertaining and hilarious. Alcohol plays a huge part in this novel, the Lieutenant in particular likes a tipple or three, and I didn’t realise that our author was also a big drinker (three bottles of whiskey a day!), the sad fact is that it led to his death. The characters are both complex and at the same time simple in how they appear, and how they end up, and I found myself desperate for a sequel, so that I could find out the fate of poor Miss Roach! This truly is a beautifully written and thought-provoking novel, and I can’t wait to read more of Patrick Hamilton’s work – Hangover Square next methinks. (apologies, must be channelling a bit of Mr Thwaites…)
Would I recommend it?:
But of course!
Star rating (out of 5):