Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
At one point in Jo Hamya’s Three Rooms, the narrator discovers the communal kitchen in her Oxford house in a desperately filthy state, with surfaces covered in tomato sauce and bins overflowing; the cleaner, Maria, is on holiday.
I moved away from the countertops and bins and found the assembly of brightly coloured microfibre rags she left on the radiator each day to dry after she’d used them.
Oh, those are Maria’s, my neighbour ventured uncertainly, having watched me wet one and scrub the counter.
I’m aware, I said.
He bit his lip. I’m not sure we’re supposed to touch them.
I rarely feel I’ve discovered an alter ego in a book, but the scene was like reading my own life, throwing me back to the kitchens I’ve shared, more often than not under layers of grease.
It’s not all dirt, though. In cataloguing the experience of certain types of twenty-somethings — university graduates, liberals and Londoners, in the main — Hamya goes well beyond near-comical horrors of those kitchens and the general cleaning incompetence of Oxbridge students: she goes into underpaid internships, over-priced London rents, passive-aggression between flatmates forced into close quarters, anxiety over Brexit, classism. Tying it all together, there is a yearning for a room of one’s own — or in the unnamed narrator’s case, a home that she can call home, where she’s free to invite friends for dinner and serve drinks from wine racks.
The eponymous three rooms are three spaces that the narrator’s life flows through, places where she arranges her belongings to make them her own for bit and yet never fully belonging. There’s her year as a research assistant at Oxford where she finds herself surrounded by privilege and blue plaques and where the world outside academia is unknown territory. There’s London, sleeping on a sofa in a stranger’s living room and working as a temporary copy editor at a society magazine. There, the glossy pages that turn environmental protests into fashion statements stand in stark contrast with not being able to afford a bus fare, and the 800 pages of the Grenfell inquiry. There’s the looming option of moving back into her parents’ house in a quiet market town, heavy with symbolism of not having made it in the world. The one constant throughout the fluctuation are the notifications on her phone, flooding her with a tidal wave of news updates on Brexit negotiations.
There’s always a discussion to be had about how soon is too soon to write about recent events, and the related concern that recency can blind a writer to things, making them seem more important than they are and consequently lost to readers in the future. Three Rooms begins in 2018, so it’s certainly a novel of its era. However, I’m convinced that it’s not only that: May’s resignation, Johnson becoming prime minister and Rees-Mogg slumping in the Commons all filter through into the story but more than anything, these snippets provide a backdrop to questions of identity and navigating a world where nothing is truly yours. In this sense, Three Rooms is a coming of age story, and coming of age stories survive through centuries; it’s just that this one is set against years of austerity and the property ladder being pulled up before you get the chance to get on it.
Beyond politics, Hamya’s narrator is surrounded by the habits 21st century human interaction has slotted into. Living life through a smartphone camera is an omnipresent theme, as is Instagram and Twitter as primary sources of information about people who you’ve just met in person. The narrator laughs at Oxbridge elite and the superficiality of the society magazine where the intern does well because of their blondness; she hits back against wellness authors and prophets of how-to-find-happiness. Sure, these are all themes that have been well represented in recent writing (think Emma Jane Unsworth’s Adults, for one), but Hamya tackles them with such an irresistible wit that everything has a freshness to it.
Despair and uncertainty underlie the novel, but a lot of the time I found myself laughing at sharp characterizations and little observations on everyday habits. Even a ticket inspection on a train turns into deadpan satire:
I flashed him the back of my phone. It took ten seconds: he peered at the card wedged between the device and the protective cover; he said, Nice one, as though my ticket had somehow been better than all the rest.
I loved Three Rooms all the more for its parallels with my life. You don’t need to live in a flatshare with a kitchen covered in tomato sauce to appreciate it, though; it’s a brilliant debut in its own right.
Anna is a journalist and linguist.
Jo Hamya, Three Rooms (Jonathan Cape, 2021). 978-1787333314, 192 pp., hardback.
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