Oh, but you’re good. Well done to everyone who correctly identified The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks, whichever method you used to spot it. It feels a bit fraudulent to label a book you May Not Have Heard About, but it’s so good that it’s going on my 50 Books nonetheless.
I read The L-Shaped Room back in 2001, having bought it on a whim for 10p, and utterly loved it. It was with some trepidation that I returned to it in 2008 – after all, though seven years may not seem like a very long time, I only really started reading Proper Books in 2000, so it’s a long time for me. I needn’t have worried – this 1960 novel of Jane Graham, unmarried and pregnant, moving into her L-shaped room, was still brilliant. I was just as gripped this time, though I knew (in surprisingly close detail) what would happen throughout the novel.
Jane is thrown out by her father when he finds out she is pregnant, and she must become independent. She chooses “an ugly, degraded district in which to find myself a room… in some obscure way I wanted to punish myself, I wanted to put myself in the setting that seemed proper to my situation.” Determined not to engage with the other occupants of the building, to suffer her solitude, she cannot help learn about them and grow to like them. There’s John, a kind, black jazz-player in the room next door; Mavis, an elderly spinster with a mania for collecting ornaments; Doris her constantly indignant landlady; even the prostitutes on the basement floor. Most importantly, there is Toby – a writer who hides his Jewishness and is irrepressibly friendly.
Banks’ strength is her characters – all of them had stayed in my head from 2001, and it was like greeting old friends. None are stereotypical (which makes it difficult to describe them, above, truth be told) and none are too nice, either – they are real people, with real motives and emotions and consequences. You love them for it, but it makes their trials and tribulations all the more traumatic for the reader.
I’ve read the sequels, The Backward Shadow and Two Is Lonely, back in 2001/2, and remember them both being good – though not as good. Last night I watched the film. I do love a black and white film – it makes one feel effortlessly intelligent. If I hadn’t just read the book, I’d probably have really loved it – but there are so many deviations. I can cope with a film missing out bits of the book, time constraints and all, but this one changed all sorts of details needlessly. Jane was French (actress can’t do an accent, I expect), her mother wasn’t dead and we never get to see her father, such an important aspect of the book. And why they gave her a baby girl instead of a boy, I can’t imagine. Still, the actors are brilliant – each looks and acts just right. Shame about the writing.
If you’ve not read The L-Shaped Room, do get a copy. Lots cheap on Amazon. And it’s also in print, which is rare enough for the books I recommend as favourites! Jane Graham will stay with you for years, as will her L-shaped room.