Monday, December 5, 2011
The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton
The Rosamund Tea Rooms is the boarding house in Thames Lockdon where Miss Roach resides to escape the bombs falling in London. It also houses the obnoxious Mr Thwaites, a relentless bully. At least in London the bombs were hit or miss.
'Miss Roach now tried to dodge his fury, to apologize, in so far as it was possible, for the present state of affairs on the Eastern Front, by smiling, making a vaguely assenting and agreeable noise in her throat, and looking hard and giddily at her soup. But Mr Thwaites was not the sort of man who would permit you to look at your soup when he was anxious to talk about the Russians.'
It was excruciating to enter the gladiator's arena that was the dining room. Peripheral characters would either sit in silence or try to appease the bully with soft snippets while waiting to see how uncomfortable things got before a retreat was in order. When an American Lieutenant takes an interest in Miss Roach I thought perhaps he would provide a refuge or at least a lovely distraction. The reality wasn't nearly as appealing and his idea of showing a woman a good time involved propping up the bar. Her most toxic relationship wasn't with either of the aforementioned men though, it was with a German woman she befriends who ends up moving into the boarding house. Vicki Kugelmann laughs and flirts her way into a threesome with the Lieutenant and Miss Roach which can only end badly. Worse still, Vicki entertains the bully, Mr Thwaites, in the dining room.
So many people have described The Slaves of Solitude as an enjoyable read but I found it uncomfortable. Which I suppose is all down to Patrick Hamilton's writing skill. From a personal perspective, as someone who was raised in an atmosphere of alcohol and bullying he nailed the tension in that dining room. But on a cheerier note there are a couple of scenes involving the etiquette faux pas of using someone else's comb that had me laughing out loud. The last twenty or so pages were the most satisfying for me and made me really glad to have hung in there.
As far as books set in boarding houses go I preferred London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins, accidental murder and all. But it's good to step outside of your comfort zone when you're reading for pleasure. It can't all be about pots of tea and slices of cake! I just don't know what I was thinking when I also bought Hamilton's Hangover Square but no doubt I'll get through that as well.