Three Rooms

Jo Hamya

Published by Jonathan Cape 8 July 2021

176pp, hardback, £12.99

Reviewed by Alison Burns

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What does it take to have a room of one’s own?  In this striking first novel (published by Cape as a ‘debut lead’), Jo Hamya follows her unnamed central character from an academic post in Oxford to a temporary job on a leading fashion magazine in London, as she searches for a place to feel at home in.  The bitter realities of life in twenty-first-century Britain are seen through the eyes of an intelligent, young, middle-class, non-white woman who had thought it reasonable to dream of job security and home ownership.

We meet her first as she moves into a characterless rented room in a North Oxford house once occupied by the critic Walter Pater and his scholarly sister Clara.  The nearest she gets to a normal social life is in encounters with a fellow occupant, a male philosophy graduate referred to as her ‘neighbour’.  Through her time as a post-doctoral research assistant in the English Faculty, she never succeeds in feeling at home, despite her perfect right to be there.  Instead, she gnashes her teeth about the privilege and entitlement she sees all around her.  Her attention is caught by one of those maddening young women who seem to have it all: the magnetic and wilful Ghislane.  She spends a lot of time observing Ghislane via Instagram, and feeling that real life is happening elsewhere.

Eight months later, she is in London, renting a sofa from a heartless young bookseller (who herself has to sell her own handmade jewellery to make ends meet) and working insecurely on the fashion magazine, where the catchphrase is ‘witty, snappy, glamorous’.  Inevitably, Ghislane – who is the daughter of a famous musician – crops up as ‘copy’.  For the second time, fleeting acquaintance does not mature into a real relationship.  Against a background of depressing news, she ruminates upon the impossibility of finding love through dating apps, of finding secure and rewarding work through effort, of solving contemporary problems such as homelessness, loneliness, climate change, social division, of ever belonging. Then, after losing her job and falling out with her flatmate, she decides to go home to her parents, where she will once again wait for her life to begin.

This is an uncomfortable read, full of yearning but also of understandable bitterness.  Hamya’s narrator wants so much, minds so much.  On her train journey home, in a briefly empty carriage, she finally lets out her pain in a scream that reverberates long after the book is closed.

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