Three Rooms by Jo Hamya: Just passing through

Cover image for Three Roooms by Jo HamyaI seem to have been on a novella roll this year: Wherabouts, Blue Highway, Assembly and Stella to name but four outstanding ones. Jo Hamya’s Three Rooms looked like a possible addition to that list with its premise of a young woman who passes through the titular three rooms, barely scraping a living over the year the book covers in which the fallout of the EU referendum and the Grenville Tower disaster are a background hum.

You are brown and bourgeois, and the internet does not believe you exist  

Our unnamed narrator of colour has been unemployed for a year. She’s an English graduate, taking up a short teaching assistant contract at Oxford with no real enthusiasm for an academic career. She installs herself in her room in the house once lived in by Walter Prater and his sister, Clara, now filled with postdoc fellows. She soon makes the acquaintance of her tea-drinking, Brexit-voting neighbour but rarely speaks to the other residents, becoming mildly obsessed with the daughter of a fading rock star who devotes more time to her Instagram account than her studies. Once her time is up, she leaves with no regret, moving her meagre possessions to the flat where she’s rented a sofa in order to take up another brief contract as a copy editor at a society fashion magazine. Here she spends four months not fitting in, learning to eke out her paltry wages by selling promotional freebies, speaking only to her colleagues and her flatmate. When the contract ends, she has little option but to give in to her mother’s pleas to return to the small market town where her parents live, spending time contemplating Tate Britain’s Turner collection before she leaves. Throughout it all, our narrator has left little or no impression, either on her surroundings or the people she’s met.

Leaving work was like being broken up with within a semi-abusive relationship  

I wasn’t at all sure I would take to Hamya’s novella with its rather formal style, not one I particularly enjoy, but it suits its narrator well. She’s a bystander rather than a participant, and Hamya’s coolly distant voice emphasises that. Each of the three rooms has a section, ending with the Clore Gallery where our narrator gathers her thoughts about herself and her country, changed by the referendum vote which brought a simmering xenophobia and racism to the surface. Privilege and inequality, both intergenerational and socioeconomic, are adroitly explored. Events which mark the politically turbulent year beginning in the late summer 2018 provide a sharply observed backdrop and there’s some quiet humour to enjoy. I particularly liked the bookselling flatmate’s pithy riposte to ‘You’ve got the best job in the world’. I’m pretty sure Hamya worked in a bookshop at some stage. In some ways Three Rooms explores similar territory to Natasha Brown’s extraordinarily powerful Assembly. Of the two I prefer Brown’s novella, but it did set the bar remarkably high.

Jonathan Cape: London 9781787333314 208 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)

18 thoughts on “Three Rooms by Jo Hamya: Just passing through”

  1. This sounds very clever, I wondered did you feel able to engage with the main character? She sounds very remote. I find I don’t need to like a character but I do need to connect with them in some way to really enjoy what I’m reading.

    1. I think that formal style emphasised her outsider status very well but she wasn’t nearly as engaging as the narrator of Natasha Brown’s Assembly. I know what you mean about not needing to like a character, though. Likeable characters can be rather dull.

  2. This one’s been on my radar since I read the Guardian’s review. I hadn’t realized it’s a novellas, which moves it up on the TBR list! (I have a lot of unread books right now).
    I’ve often thought that the present age is a particularly tough one for young people to establish themselves, an opinion that seems to be at least somewhat reflected in the coming of age novels we see these days. When you add the burdens of race, class and gender to the normal difficulty of finding one’s way in the world, well — I think the Guardian called it a “perverse” coming of age, or some such. I wonder if Hamya is suggesting that brutal economic realities determine everything, that without a job or economic resources there IS no place for her nameless woman of color, who is almost literally a ghost in the current world, particularly with its growing xenophoic tendencies? (sorry Guardian, if I’ve lifted this idea — can’t remember). The formal language, as you point out, would be a very mirror to the protagonist’s incorporeal state, so to speak.

    1. Novellas are an easy win in the TBR battle, aren’t they? I agree about how tough it’s been for young people, certainly since the 2007/8 crash and even more so now. I think Hamya handles that well with her nameless narrator faced with the prospect of seemingly endless temporary employment, no matter how well qualified she is, or the loss of her independence by returning home. I’m not sure if you already have Natasha Brown’s Assembly on your list but, at the risk of expanding that further, I’d recommend it. Also a novella, if that helps!

      1. Ohhhhh, how exciting! Another novella! It’s amazing how many more novellas I’m reading since last year; I’m actually becoming quite addicted to them and much more tolerant of short story collections as well. I did not, in fact, have Assembly on my TBR until I read your review! (I checked it out afterwards and it looked most interesting. That’s it’s also short clinched the deal. Thanks!)

        1. You’re welcome. Now very tempted to recommend Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts, also a superb novella, also reviewed here, but you may come to curse me if we go down that road… Happy to hear any recommendations from your own novella reading.

          1. Oh, recommend away! I long ago realized that, sooner or later, my TBR mountain was going to fall over and squish me, and I’ve accepted my fate! At least I’ll depart happy.
            Isn’t Lahiri wonderful — and amazing? I’ve read her short story collection (Interpreter of Maladies), which was great, but nothing else. I have seen some very good reviews for Whereabouts and it does sound like something of a departure from some of her previous subject matter but well worth reading.
            My novella reading has so far largely focused on classics, Melville House editions, which have been shamefully neglected by me for a very long time (Wharton’s The Touchstone; Cather’s Alexander’s Bridge; Turgenev’s First Love — that kind of thing. I’ve enjoyed them all). I have read some very interesting short novels, barely past novella length, which I’d recommend: Amélie Nothomb’s Strike Your Heart (an odd, interesting, almost fable like mother-daughter story) and Jens Grondahl’s Often I Am Happy (a beautifully written tale of marriage and grief). Since both books were “firsts” for me vis á vis their respective authors, I’m no idea how representative they are of those authors’ work.

          2. Well, I don’t want to be the one whose recommendation sees you off! I loved Lahiri’s The Namesake and have been fascinated with her passion for the Italian language.

            The Grondahl was excellent and I like the sound of the Northomb. There, you’ve added one to my TBR, now!

  3. I love a good novella, the shorter form can somehow be more powerful. This does sound great, the backdrop to real events like the referendum and Grenville making it especially interesting.

    1. It’s become my favourite form, combining the discipline of a short story with the added length to be able to develop a theme and characters. I found this one slightly disappointing but still well worth reading.

  4. It makes me wonder how you might have responded to this one if just a little more time had passed since you read and reviewed Assembly. Sometimes proximity like that seems to boost both books, sometimes not. And of course we can’t step into the same book-river twice…

    1. I think that’s a fair point. Although Assembly is undoubtedly the better book, I think my judgement of this one was coloured by reading it so shortly afterwards.

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