If you’ve ever had the disturbing pleasure of reading Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square, you’ll immediately recognize his acerbic, wonderfully sarcastic narrator in The Slaves of Solitude as par for the course. Miss Roach, the “heroine,” is impeccably sardonic, but the brilliance of her character is that most of her attitude and observations are internal (and therefore internalized). Her actual dialogue, however, always remains, covertly and quietly, below the radar, which will make you doubly grateful when she manages to spew a perfectly veiled insult at the annoying Mr. Thwaites. Already singled out as a spinster, and therefore “shit out of luck,” by the nosy Mr. Thwaites, she later surprises even herself by making friends with an American Lieutenant. To her never ending shock, he’s actually interested in her romantically! Miss Roach, who lives in the Tea Rooms of fictitious Thames Lockdon, has been “bombed out of her apartment” in London and has been forced to live amongst gossipy housemates. Every day after work, walking from the train station to the boarding house, she must navigate the dark streets of this despised cookie cutter suburb.
Don’t be deceived by this simple synopsis, because The Slaves of Solitude is incredibly subversive. When Miss Roach’s German friend, Vicki, insinuates herself into the Tea Rooms, becomes thick as thieves with the insufferable Thwaites, and eventually turns into a bully of unnecessary (and unexpected) proportions, you will be truly captivated by the tension Hamilton creates. Despite this, and the setting (England in the middle of World War II during the Blitz and blackout), this was an oddly comedic novel.
When I began this novel, I knew very little about the blackout, so I did some research and found a fantastic selection of World War II posters that encouraged everyone to stay safe in the dark. The catchy slogan Lookout in the Blackout warned British citizens to look both ways before crossing the street, to wait for their eyes to adjust in the dark before walking any great distance, and explained that one must wave a white flag at bus stations to indicate a stop request. The darkness is an immense part of the story, as it cloaks the dialogue, the action and the plot, in a murky, somewhat sinister atmosphere. The distinction between night and day is palpable. They are living in two different worlds.
There are moments when you will be truly mortified by the behaviour of Vicki and Mr. Thwaites, and even the American Lieutenant, who have the maturity level of thirteen year old children. It’s like watching Mean Girls, only with adults. Whenever Miss Roach wished to leave the group, she would be cajoled and teased into staying: “Oh, come on!” “Don’t be a spoil sport!” “Oh, don’t be silly!” It was endlessly insulting and no amount of “No, really, I must go” would free this poor woman from the drunken ruckus she desperately wished to escape.
Patrick Hamilton has an uncanny ability to build tension. He throws his characters into pressure cooker situations and watches them squirm, waits for them to react, and allows them to do so with authenticity. Miss Roach is incredibly agreeable, so when she finally cracks – loses her shit, so to speak – the reader is almost grateful, thankful, relieved that she has finally said how she feels, expressed anger and insult, defended herself. Unfortunately, her voice is not loud enough to overwhelm the booming, critical, facetious and childish guffaws of Mr. Thwaites and his new partner in crime, Vicki. His incredulity and pomposity are almost insurmountable. Karma, however, is not absent from the pages of this novel. There is a vague sense of retribution, a lovely feeling of escape, perhaps even revenge, but Miss Roach is an unusual character, and very human. She second guesses herself and is always wondering if she’s done the right thing, if she’s overreacted. Alas, it’s this flaw that keeps the reader from fully trusting her as a narrator.
Despite how fantastically uncomfortable this novel was to read, I thoroughly enjoyed the social commentary, psychological analysis of living in a world at war, and a tension not unlike Lord of the Flies.