Saturday, May 24

The L-Shaped Room - Lynne Reid Banks

Jane Graham is twenty-eight, a former actress with a travelling company, personal assistant for one of the managers at upscale hotel Drummond's, single, and five weeks pregnant. In 1950's England that's scandalous; her relationship with her father, already tense and disapproving, can't withstand the extra pressure and Jane's on her own. She has to decide if she wants to keep the baby and, with few possessions and less money, find a place to live. Jane finds a lodging in a run-down boarding house on a seedy part of town - at the top of five flights of stairs, sharing walls with another lodgers room, dingy, dark and oppressive, Jane believes she deserves no better. But as the weeks pass Jane, and the friends she makes in her new home, begins to transform the space into a haven, and she becomes attached to her little L-shaped room.
This classic of modern literature is a triumph - published in 1960, it captures the sentiments and prejudices of the time, and manages to overturn them. The racism, anti-Semetisism, homophobia, sexism and double standards are skillfully wover into the plot, all the more compelling for the fact that the novel was written contemporaneously with the era it portrays.
Jane is lively and believable, realistic but in some ways naïve to modern eyes, and her evolution is beautiful to watch. I felt a particular engagement with the novel for family reasons - though this is my first reading, The L-Shaped Room is one of my mother's favourite books, and I know my sisters have also enjoyed it.
One of the highlights of Jane's confinement is her aunt Addy, the kind of aunt I hope to be, and the description of her home was so close to my vision of my home when my nephews and nieces are a little older, spoke as though it had been written for me.
A decade after The L-Shaped Room was published I spent my earliest years only a suburb or two away from Fulham, the site of Jane's new home, and one of my sisters lives in Fulham now - I found the contrast between perceptions of the area then (remore, grimy, lower-class, run-down and seedy) and now (expensive, desirable, central) is striking, perhaps more so than the changes in community attitudes. I was also struck by how much more materialistic we are today. I don't know many people who would be happy with a tiny room, communal washing facilities, and a five-storey climb, for a holiday, let alone to live.
This is a beautiful, profound, absorbing and meticulously crafted book that I wholeheartedly recommend. - Alex

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