Across the Page: Summer Reads 2008

This list of summer reads includes a wide range of styles and subjects: Stella Duffy’s multilayered The Room of Lost Things captures a neighborhood in South London through the eyes of six characters; Stephanie Grant’s Map of Ireland is the profound story of a young girl in South Boston during the 1970s; and Ariel Schrag‘s graphic memoirs chronicle her first three years at Berkeley High School in California.

The Room of Lost Things by Stella Duffy (Virago)

Stella Duffy’s inspired The Room of Lost Things, which was recently longlisted for the Orange Prize, is the story of Loughborough Junction, a diverse neighborhood in South London, through the eyes of six characters.

The main figure is Robert Sutton, who is in the midst of retiring from the dry-cleaning shop he’s owned for years. Robert’s unlikely successor is Akeel Khan, a young man from East London whose first step in forming his own identity and life is to move away from the watchful eye of his Pakistani family.

From the outside, Akeel and Robert could not be more different, and as the two men are forced to spend time together in the small confines of the shop, Duffy deftly reveals their awkwardness, skepticism and curiosity for “the other.” In fact, much of this book is about perspective — how two people can look at the same space in dramatically different ways not only because of where they come from but because of where they are headed.

This is also true for the other four other characters in The Room of Lost Things: Marilyn, an exhausted health visitor; Helen, a nanny whose introduction reveals the complexity of her position as the family’s prime caretaker; Stefan, a gay well-being guru who doesn’t always practice what he preaches; and bad-boy Dean.

As the characters move through Loughborough, bumping into and off each other, Duffy slowly weaves a complex, engaging and powerful narrative. The multiple points of view provide a complete picture of the community on both a micro and macro level, revealing the characters’ individual secrets and lives against the changing face of the neighborhood.

In the middle of everything is a room in the back of Robert’s shop for, as the title denotes, “lost things.” Akeel learns of the room after he talks with Robert about having to write a best man’s speech for his cousin’s wedding. Robert brings him to the room, which he had originally called the storeroom, to reveal a collection of items that “people leave in their pockets,” including a speech.

Akeel is surprised by Robert’s pride at what he considers “at best hoarding, and at worst maybe theft,” but the room serves as a brilliant metaphor that Duffy finally brings to the surface: Somewhere inside each of us exists a room for lost things.

Map of Ireland by Stephanie Grant (Scribner)

“Even though I’m not a practicing Catholic, I still need confession,” says Ann Ahern, the sharp, 16-year-old narrator of Stephanie Grant’s Map of Ireland, which is set in South Boston in 1974 during desegregation of Ann’s high school.

In the first few pages of the novel, Ann explains that she has recently landed herself in St. Joseph’s Home for Girls (“which, don’t be fooled by the name, is a state facility for juvenile girls”), and that part of her crime involved burning down a house. If she was a “certain kind of person,” she says, she’d blame her troubles on her Senegalese teacher, Mademoiselle Eugénie, or on “desegregation itself.”

From the beginning, Ann does not know what to make of Mademoiselle Eugénie, the French teacher who quickly becomes the object of her affection. The issue is not that Ann is attracted to a woman — Ann is remarkably open and out for a teenager living in South Boston in the mid-1970s. What’s so surprising about this crush is that Mademoiselle Eugénie “was the blackest person” Ann had ever seen.

“The color shone off Mademoiselle Eugénie’s skin, and I realized then, for the first time, that black had other colors in it.”