The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

The Slaves of Solitude by [Hamilton, Patrick]Patrick Hamilton's The Slaves of Solitude is set in 1943 and was written in 1947. In it the Second World War is almost a character in itself, driving people from their homes, throwing the country into oppressive darkness and acting as a sort of 'petty pilferer' of everything from butter and sugar to cigarettes and nail polish. Even the very dawn, Hamilton tells us, 'bore no more resemblance to a peace-time dawn than the aspect of nature on a Sunday bears a resemblance to a Sunday bears a resemblance to the aspect of nature on a weekday ... the dawn itself had been grimly harnessed to the war effort, made to alter its normal mode of existence, had been Bevin-conscripted.'

Indeed, the very premise of the book is reliant on the circumstances of war-time. Miss Roach (only three-quarters through the story do we learn that her first name is Enid) is a single woman in her late 30s and has been bombed out of her London home. Like many others, she has left the city to escape the Blitz and now boards at a slightly shabby guest house in Thames Lockdon, a small, claustrophobic riverside town 25 miles away, and commutes to London every day to her job as a general administrator and occasional manuscript reader at a publishing house. The boarding house itself, still known as the Rosamund Tea Room despite having stopped functioning as such years previously, is a stiflingly tedious environment in which all the residents live a life of unvarying routine punctuated by mediocre rationed meals and awkward, hushed conversation. Two things, however, dangerously disrupt the Rosamund Tea Room's equilibrium and Miss Roach's own life: the arrival of an American soldier who takes a shine to her, and a new guest in the form of Vicki Kugelmann, a German woman who has lived in England for the past 15 years and with whom Miss Roach has previously befriended out of sympathy.

And yet, despite it being so solidly rooted in the war, there's so much about this story that also feels strikingly current. Mr Thwaites, the Rosamund Tea Room's most universally loathed resident, for example, is a type you'll almost certainly recognise. Thwaites is a tiresome bully who is desperate to goad Miss Roach into political arguments in which she has no interest in participating, is fully convinced that anyone who disagrees with him is a Communist, and reads no newspaper other than the Daily Mail. He has 'further narrowed his mind by a considerable amount of travel abroad' and gleefully enjoys the horrors of war, listening to the news 'in the test match spirit'. If you've met a loud, blazer-wearing, retired middle-class UKIP-supporting pub bore whose attempts at being jovial always involve a deeply unfunny lapse into weird faux-historical language ('A fine morning, in Troth! And dost though go forth this bonny morn, into the highways and byways?') or vaguely offensive comedy accents ('I hay ma doots, as the Scotchman said ... of yore') you've essentially met Mr Thwaites. And like Miss Roach, you've probably gritted your teeth and nodded politely when you wanted to punch him in the face. Mr Thwaites is one of those types who secretly admires German fascism, but also hates individual Germans - 'for although Mr Thwaites in his heart profoundly respected the German people for their political wisdom, he was not the sort of man who could refrain from participation in any sort of popular chase when one appeared on his doorstep'.

The Slaves of Solitude is a comedy as dark as the blackout, and I'm convinced it could only ever have been written in England, depending so heavily as it does on a) the repression of every emotion under the sun in a despite bid to avoid the horrors of 'making a scene' and b) everyone drinking unwisely on an almost daily basis in order to compensate for this. Alcohol is as constant a presence in this novel as it is in Hamilton's Hangover Square, and it's only with a couple of drinks in them that any of the characters seem even halfway capable of enjoying themselves - and even then, it's a pretty hollow sort of enjoyment in which Miss Roach, probably correctly, suspects they'd never have indulged in peace-time. Miss Roach's largely unvoiced loathing of Mr Thwaites and her silent resentment of Vicki Kugelmann - a woman for whom the word 'frenemy' might have been invented - are entirely credible, however frustrating they might be (you will want to shout 'Just bloody TELL them' at least once per chapter).

I know The Slaves of Solitude will absolutely not be to everyone's taste, but I loved it more than anything I've read in a very long time. It's evocative, perceptive and brilliantly written, full of perfectly chosen details - Patrick Hamilton has an eye like no other for mundane minutiae that acquire significance in the claustrophobic world of boarding houses, commuter trains, pubs and park benches. It's often bleak, certainly, but it's also very funny, a true tragicomedy in which events unfold gloriously small scale, but which also seems to say something so much bigger. It's impossible not to root for Miss Roach, whose silent observations of her fellow boarding house residents are pin-sharp and whose own self-analysis is also so considered and astute. While it's very much a book about boredom, petty social prejudices and low-level rivalries, it also celebrates the tiniest of victories in a way that I couldn't help but find slightly heartwarming, and while the ending is certainly a long way from being happy-ever-after, it feels satisfyingly appropriate.