Two things often attract me to a book at first glance—how the cover looks (one good example would be Chez Moi) or the title (how can you resist something called “The Atlas of Impossible Longing”). With Stella Duffy’s new book, it was the title that first grabbed my attention. The Room of Lost Things sent a nice shiver down my back in anticipation of the read ahead.
It’s the story of Robert Sutton who is retiring after 40 or so years of being in the business of dry cleaning. His advertisement attracts Akeel Khan, a young second generation east Londoner who wants to make his mark in the world. Robert trains Akeel in the business and introduces him to the room of lost things where Robert keeps all the secret odds and ends that people leave behind in their pockets. Robert himself is hiding his own big secret. And as they move tentatively towards understanding each other, a curiously moving friendship develops between them. This is only the barest description of a novel brimming in memorable characters and rich details. Ms. Duffy’s great strength lies in her skill at fleshing out characters that grip you till the last page without sacrificing a strong plot.
It's really nice the way the author interweaves Robert and Akeel’s friendship with snippets of other people’s lives. There is Helen who only wants to be loved but is stuck in a fast going nowhere relationship and Stefan who fears intimacy with a passion. And then there is the “Poet” who peeks into other people’s lives as he travels by bus. I shouldn’t forget to mention that one character which was as vivid if not more so than the others in the book, is the city of London, specifically the area of Loughborough Junction. Often, this area is described as a rather rough neighborhood but while reading this book one gets an altogether different view. True, it maybe rough and a little shabby but there is a sense of community and the mix of different people make it a lot more interesting than more fashionable or homogenous neighborhoods. At the end of the day these are ordinary people with ordinary stories but they are somehow imbued with a certain grace that makes reading about them as satisfying as a cup of tea on a cold day.