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The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid-Banks - Review

Saturday, January 27, 2024


I got this book for Christmas from a book swap I did based on Twitter. My partner and I sent each other some information about the type of book we like, and I mentioned that I'm a fan of kitchen sink drama. I think that's why Jon chose this book, and I have to say, he did brilliantly because that's exactly what this is. I hadn't heard of the book before, or even the author, so I am really glad to read her for the first time and have another author opened up to me.

The book was published in 1960 and first of all I have to say it is very reflective of its time in terms of attitudes and bigotry. That is my main caveat in this review, because I really enjoyed the book but clearly didn't like the discriminatory language used. I'll get to that...

So, Jane Graham is the heroine of this book. At the very beginning she moves into an L-shaped room at the top of a dingy boarding house in Fulham. I didn't fully understand the layout but she's got two arms to the room because another room has been carved out of the space. This room doesn't have a window, so Jane is surprised on nearly her first night when a face appears at the window on the partition between their rooms. The face belongs to John, a black jazz musician. Below Jane are Mavis, whose room is full of knickknacks, and Toby, a writer. There's also the owner, Doris, and her chap, Charlie. In the basement are two sex workers. 

Jane has had to move out of her nice family home because she is pregnant. Her own mother died giving birth to her so it's always just been her and her dad, with some family who visited at Christmas. Jane is twenty-seven and until the sexual encounter that got her pregnant, was a virgin. She had toured as an actor with a troupe in her early twenties, and there met the man she refers to only as The Actor. She had to leave and then got a job in a hotel in the west end. She has carved a niche for herself there and really respects her boss, James, but she knows that she will have to give up her job when the baby is born. When she told her father the news, he told her to leave his house, hence why she has ended up in the boarding house. 

She meets the other inhabitants of the house, and starts a relationship with Toby. She brightens up the room even though Doris isn't happy about this, with the help of John and Toby. The book encompasses nearly the whole of her pregnancy, but it has a lot of other stuff too, going backwards in Jane's life to give a complete picture of her life. I really liked Jane and I liked her aunt Addy. I liked Toby and John and the sex workers in the basement. I could imagine the house perfectly and thought it was really true to life. I would definitely give the book five out of five for its story and its perfect kitchen sink drama. 

However, the racism and homophobia really put me off. John is black and I think he suffers most from Jane's racism. She really 'others' him. It's not like she dislikes him, but she's fascinated by his blackness and his skin and the way he speaks. There is more outward racism towards him from other characters, including Jane's dad. Then Toby is Jewish, and the K slur is used towards him and other Jews many times in the book although, again, not from Jane's point of view. I don't think SHE minds Jewish people as much as she minds black people, but she doesn't really call other people out. She is however disdainful towards a queer ex colleague of hers. So just be aware of these attitudes and words in the book if you read it.

I do think this is really representative of its time, when people really did look down on people who were different to them. Jane's attitudes don't seem like anything out of the ordinary - for the time. But does that mean I have to like it? No. 

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