This is the second book written in 1960 that I’ve reviewed within the space of a week, and boy, they couldn’t be more different!
Whereas Dennis Wheatley’s The Satanist was an adventure yarn about a bunch of fine, patriotic chaps saving the realm from a murderous Satanic cult who want to start WWIII, this is the story of a pregnant woman who has to move into a crappy room in a dingy house after being kicked out of the family home by her dad.
Here, she finds friendship, support and, yes, love among her new housemates, including a frustrated Jewish writer called Toby, a black jazz musician called John, her stern landlady, the eccentric old lady downstairs and the two prostitutes who live in the basement.
Jane Graham is a likeable, intelligent and cultured protagonist who merely finds herself on the wrong side of the social mores of her time. Author Lynne Reid Banks vividly evokes the squalor and griminess of the post-war period while conjuring a cast of richly-drawn characters, each with their own complex arcs and motivations.
As modern readers, we can only look on aghast as Jane accepts as inevitable the fact that she’ll lose her job because of her pregnancy. Proof that some things at least do change for the better.
One thing this book does have in common with its 1960 cousin The Satanist, though, is the whiff of racism. It seems that the author cannot mention John, the black jazz musician, without also mentioning the jungle, or his body odour. It’s a real shame, and also slightly baffling, because John is a sympathetic character, one of the good guys. He’s as deep, complex and richly-drawn as any of the others.
The L-Shaped Room provides an invaluable snapshot of Britain right at that moment. In these pages it’s frozen in time for us to delve into and experience, casual racism included.