Across the Page: Summer Reads

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."

 

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