The Lodgers by Holly Pester: Living on the margins

Cover image for The Lodgers by Holly PresterThe Lodgers is acclaimed poet Holly Pester’s first novel. I’m partial to novels by poets and the premise of this one sounded interesting: a woman returns to her hometown, subletting an apartment overlooking her mother’s house, imagining the life of the lodger who’s taken over her room in the last house she lived. Sounds simple enough but Pester’s debut is far from that.

September in a town in this country. Bad luck. A wrong ache of a country. An angry old nation in an armchair swatting at nothing.

Our narrator arrives tired after her journey, unpacking what little she has and noting the paranoid subletter’s agreement on the kitchen table forbidding her to talk to the neighbours and insisting her rent be disguised as something else in her bank transfers. The door of the second bedroom is labelled ‘Kav’ so she knows which is hers. It’s not the first time she’s come back to this town in which she grew up with her mother, an actor given to raucous parties when she was at home and leaving her daughter alone when she was on tour. Every day she thinks she’ll visit Moffa but can’t seem to bring herself to do it, fending off acquaintances and their concern, bumping into old friends now and again, wondering if Kav will ever turn up while spending much of her time imagining how her successor is settling into her old room. The narrator had been proud of the way she fit into the family, forming what she thought of as an intimacy which she imagines her successor continuing. On she drifts until a crisis hits.

I was more myself living in the margin of Moffa’s house. That is where I learnt, like you, to lodge. I mean, adapt and hide my needs rather than dig down, simply hover without much substance, meekly occupy, as the tenant of the tenant, it’s how I was born.

Pester shifts between her narrator’s predicament and the fantasy life she creates for her successor in the house where she’d glimpsed the possibility of belonging. She’s a woman forever living on the edges of others’ lives, thrust into an odd intimacy of used bathrooms, unaccustomed babysitting, and family dramas. The relationship with the landlady’s child was a thrilling novelty for her, making her feel special despite the tantrums and taunting resulting from her ineptitude at childcare. Perhaps the new lodger’s life will play out better than her own, perhaps she’ll find the family she craves rather than being thrown out for bad behaviour like her predecessor. Pester’s narrative is disconcerting at times, and I’m not sure I entirely got what she was trying to say. It’s a dark book, discomfiting in its evocation of the pain of not belonging anywhere or with anyone. The acknowledgements mention that it grew out of an improvisation performance piece which made sense to me. I was intrigued by it rather than loving it but I’m glad I read it, and its cover suits it perfectly.

Granta Books: London 9781783789832 224 pages Hardback

14 thoughts on “The Lodgers by Holly Pester: Living on the margins”

  1. ‘Intriguing’ seems to cover the ground you’ve described here. I’m tempted too by the fact that Hester is a (unread by me) poet, but your account makes it hard to see why you say you’re glad you read it. I think it’s one to read if I come across it, but I’m not going a-hunting.

  2. I can’t remember where but I read something recently about novels by poets being off-putting. Like you, I’m the exact opposite – it usually piques my interest because I think the writing will be the concise, pared-back style I enjoy.

  3. I love the premise of this one – will try to flick through in a bookshop to get even more of a sense of the writing (thanks for the quotes you’ve included)

  4. That does sound intriguing and the theme of belonginess (or rather not really belonging) does interest me as well–the fact it started as an improv piece does seem to reflect in your description of it (not that I have guessed if not told but when told, it starts to make sense, if that makes sense).

  5. “She’s a woman forever living on the edges of others’ lives, thrust into an odd intimacy of used bathrooms, unaccustomed babysitting, and family dramas.”

    What an opportunity to observe. I’m definitely intrigued.

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