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[538] The Room of Lost Things – Stella Duffy

room

” Alice made friends with a dozen customers in as many years of business. Robert continued some of her friendships when he took over, and made perhaps another ten of his own. Always he stayed and they moved . . . The ones that remain he will pass on to Akeel . . . These customers are part of the shop’s legacy, Robert has meant something to them and they to him. ” (Ch.34, p.223)

Set in contemporary London, The Room of Lost Things portrays a surprising but moving friendship. Robert Sutton has run his dry-cleaning shop in Loughborough Junction for over forty years. His mother purchased the business after working there for several years. Robert has grown up in the shop which is located at the heart of a bustling community. After his mother died, he continues running the business and knows his customers well.

He takes the stains and the tears and the messy secrets and makes them go away. But Robert remembers who brings them in, the soiled articles, the broken zips, ripped dresses, old suits, he checks the pockets for lost lists and letters, and he knows what his customers are trying to hide, cover up, make good, make do and mend. (Ch.2, p.12)

At retiring age, Robert makes the first step by putting the business up on the market. The only prospective buyer is a 26-year-old young British Muslim from East London, Akeel. Born and raised in England, he feels disconnected from his Pakistani family and culture. He strives to establish manhood by launching his own business. When the old man decides to sell the business to Akeel, he does not think they have much in common. Neither of them wears his heart on the sleeves, let alone the most guarded emotions. But as the young man learns his new trade, they begin to reveal their hidden lives.

All these other people he knows too much about, he understands, keeps their secrets, and no one left to listen to his. Robert has never been lonely before, no chance to be, he went from son to husband to father with no time between, he has always lived with other people . . . (Ch.35, p.224)

As this most unusual friendship grows, the intonation decoded, the the underlying context cleared, the uncomfortable silence dissolved, Robert finds in Akeel a loyal listener to whom he will confide in and reveal his secrets. The delineation of a friendship with a surprising magnitude gives way to Robert’s unspoken past. Like the many lost things that were properly labeled and stowed away in the shop, Robert has meticulously sealed up his past: a doom marriage, a demanding, terminally ill mother, an estranged daughter, and a late affair. A book of great passion and sensitivity, The Room of Lost Things shows nuances of one’s solitude, a solitude that is measured by the vicissitude of a south London community. The quiet novel is redolent of atmospheric evocation of the place over time, and of the inconsequential lives that come and go the fixture that is a dry-cleaner shop.

312 pp. Virago UK. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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