The Tyranny of Lost Things by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett: Communes and how to survive them

Cover image I was looking for a novel to get stuck into having just given up one I’d been eagerly anticipating but which proved to be disappointing. Set during the 2011 London heatwave, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s debut, The Tyranny of Lost Things, neatly filled the gap.

No one’s warned Harmony about the unearthly shrieks of the elderly alcoholic tenant downstairs which wake her on her first morning in her new flatshare at 26 Longhope Crescent but they’re strangely familiar. Unbeknownst to her flatmates, Harmony has lived in the house before when her parents were part of a commune. Torn between convention and wanting to flout it, Stella fell for thirty-four-year-old Bryn when she was just a teenager, struggling with his throwback hippie ideals, top of the list being free love. Harmony spent her childhood after her parents spilt following her mother from boyfriend to boyfriend and rarely seeing her father who took himself off to Wales. She’s dropped out of university, waitressing in a pub when one panic attack too many decides her to return to the house where she knows something traumatic happened twenty years ago. Harmony moves in with Josh and Lucia telling neither about her past but determined to find out what triggers the nightmares in which a red-haired young woman occasionally appears.

Cosslett structures her novel around a series of objects – many of which trigger memories in the jigsaw of events that Harmony is trying to fit together – interspersing them with snapshots from her character’s commune childhood, giving the narrative a taut thread of suspense. London is vividly evoked in all its grimy, resplendent glory in what feels like a love letter to the city. Cosslett’s characters could easily have been stereotypical cardboard cutouts but she manages to avoid that, fleshing them out into complex fully realised human beings and giving her novel a pleasing edge with her sharp social observation. The skewering of male middle class protestations of political solidarity with the miners’ strike was particularly satisfying. A thoroughly enjoyable novel which made me remember Lukas Moodysson’s hilarious, heart-wrenching film Together. Not sorry to have missed all that in my own old-fashioned, conventional childhood.

9 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Lost Things by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett: Communes and how to survive them”

  1. What timing – half an hour ago I was reading about this in last Saturday’s (or possibly the previous week’s) Guardian Review! The article was more about the effects of hippy upbringing and didn’t say anything about the novel, but I am now very interested to read it.

  2. This sounds interesting – especially the structuring of the novel around objects. Set during the heatwave might make it a good one to read in the winter!

    1. We’re in a middle of one here right now, and I seem to have read a couple of books with a similar temperature setting! I think I need something set in a Canadian winter to help me cool down…

  3. I often enjoy Cosslett’s columns in the Guardian so I can well imagine a novel by her would be interesting. She seems to have a sharp eye for the fuzzy edges of human interaction. This sounds a fascinating read. Glad it plugged the disappointment gap (disappointing books are the worst).

    1. Particularly ones you’ve been eagerly anticipating! It’s a very enjoyable read, Belinda. I particularly liked her skewering of political posturing – very satisfying for this miner’s granddaughter.

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