Sunday, May 31, 2009

Muffled, Blundering and Muttering

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton is about one of those really nice people who tend to get pushed around or find themselves in uncomfortable situations because they rarely stand up for themselves and who also find themselves rather alone because they also tend to be bland in the personality department. Miss Roach is such a nice person. She is thirty-nine, single, mousy but not completely unattractive, believes in propriety and manners and doing the right thing. She wants to think the best of people and so gives them the benefit of the doubt when behavior, manners, or words are rude or mean.

Miss Roach began her career-life as a schoolmistress, fresh from university and full of passion, energy and ideas. She was not prepared for reality. When faced with it, she quickly abandoned all her idealism. As a schoolmistress she was liked but not very good and eventually she ended up working for a publishing firm in London. As the book opens it is the tail-end of 1943 and Miss Roach is living in a boardinghouse in a small town outside of London because she is terrified of the bombs. She takes the train into London for work and returns to the boardinghouse at night and generally tries to avoid thinking and reading about the war as much as possible.

The boardinghouse, known as the Rosamund Tea Rooms, presents a certain kind of hell for someone like Miss Roach. Ruled over by the petty tyrant Mr. Thwaites who has chosen Miss Roach as his special victim, it is a dreary and dull place that drags a person down. The other boarders try to provide support to Miss Roach as Mr. Thwaites pokes and prods and takes verbal swipes at Miss Roach during meals and tea, but they are all ineffective. Why Mr. Thwaites has chosen Miss Roach to bully is a mystery. We can only surmise that it is because he knows he can. Miss Roach cannot or will not defend herself, get angry, talk back, ignore, or counterattack. She is too nice.

Into Miss Roach's dull life comes the American, Lieutenant Pike, stationed in town while the Allies build up their forces for a second front in the war. Lt. Pike drinks too much but takes a shine to Miss Roach who neither likes nor dislikes him but goes along because it is better than not going along and because it is something that breaks the monotony of her days. But Lt. Pike is nothing compared to what's about to come along.

Miss Roach, being the nice person she is, made friends with a German woman, Vicki Kugelmann, when she defended the woman from anti-German attacks from some people in the town. Vicki had lived in Britain long before the war started and was a British citizen. Miss Roach felt it her obligation to defend the woman who seemed like she was unable to defend herself, and who Miss Roach imagined, could use a friend. So they met for coffee on Saturday mornings and sometimes for the occasional dinner. Miss Roach, thinking she was helping Vicki, suggested that Vicki come live at the Rosamund Tea Rooms. But when a room comes open and Vicki moves in, she turns out not to be the shy, needy person Miss Roach had imagined and Vicki had played up. Instead, Vicki turns out to be a bitch.

Miss Roach doesn't know what to think at first so she tries to overlook all the evidence that Vicki is not like she supposed. One thing leads to another and finally Miss Roach is pushed into a corner and has to fight back or lose every last shred of self-worth. What happens? What does Miss Roach do? Does Vicki get her comeuppance? And what about Mr. Thwaites? I won't say. You have to read the book to find out.

Overall I enjoyed the book. It's not exactly a page turner and took awhile before I felt engaged by it, but it was worth the time. It's a quiet book which is surprising for something set in the middle of World War II. But books set during a big war don't have to be about fighting and death and depravation. Certainly the war affected the lives of the characters, but the events of the war are not central to the book. There might be bombers flying overhead but people are people and life goes on. The bullies and bitches do their thing and the nice people do theirs.

Given the book's title, I could go on about how the characters are "slaves of solitude," and it would be true. Each of them are wrapped up and separate from each other. An image from early in the book sums it up nicely. Miss Roach is on her way home from the train station at the end of the day. People carry flashlights to find their way around in the dark because of the enforced blackout conditions. As Miss Roach makes her way along the river to the boardinghouse she observes,
She heard a couple of frozen people muttering and blundering behind her, and another couple muttering and blundering ahead of her. A solitary firefly-holder came blundering by her. The earth was muffled from the stars; the river and the pretty eighteenth-century bridge were muffled from the people; the people were muffled from each other.

Muffled, blundering, and muttering pretty much describes all the characters in the book in one way or another. It sounds pretty depressing, and it could be, but Hamilton offers something bigger than a firefly glimmer at the end of the book, a purification of sorts that allows a couple of the characters redemption from boardinghouse hell, a brief respite before the hell of war is let loose over London, on the beaches of Normandy and in the sky over Japan.

Cross-posted at So Many Books