Wednesday 16 July 2008

Letter-Shaped Living

Oh, but you're good. Well done to everyone who correctly identified The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks, whichever method you used to spot it. It feels a bit fraudulent to label a book you May Not Have Heard About, but it's so good that it's going on my 50 Books nonetheless.

I read The L-Shaped Room back in 2001, having bought it on a whim for 10p, and utterly loved it. It was with some trepidation that I returned to it in 2008 - after all, though seven years may not seem like a very long time, I only really started reading Proper Books in 2000, so it's a long time for me. I needn't have worried - this 1960 novel of Jane Graham, unmarried and pregnant, moving into
her L-shaped room, was still brilliant. I was just as gripped this time, though I knew (in surprisingly close detail) what would happen throughout the novel.

Jane is thrown out by her father when he finds out she is pregnant, and she must become independent. She chooses "an ugly, degraded district in which to find myself a room... in some obscure way I wanted to punish myself, I wanted to put myself in the setting that seemed proper to my situation." Determined not to engage with the other occupants of the building, to suffer her solitude, she cannot help learn about them and gro
w to like them. There's John, a kind, black jazz-player in the room next door; Mavis, an elderly spinster with a mania for collecting ornaments; Doris her constantly indignant landlady; even the prostitutes on the basement floor. Most importantly, there is Toby - a writer who hides his Jewishness and is irrepressibly friendly.

Banks' strength is her characters - all of them had stayed in my head from 2001, and it was like greeting old friends. None are
stereotypical (which makes it difficult to describe them, above, truth be told) and none are too nice, either - they are real people, with real motives and emotions and consequences. You love them for it, but it makes their trials and tribulations all the more traumatic for the reader.

I've read the sequels, The Backward Shadow and Two Is Lonely, back in 2001/2, and remember them both being good - though not as good. Last night I watched the film. I do love a black and white film - it makes one feel effortlessly intelligent. If I hadn't just read the book, I'd probably have really loved it - but there are so many deviations. I can cope with a film missing out bits of the book, time constraints and all, but this one changed all sorts of details needlessly. Jane was French (actress can't do an accent, I expect), her mother wasn't dead and we never get to see her father, such an important aspect of the book. And why they gave her a baby girl instead of a boy, I can't imagine. Still, the actors are brilliant - each looks and acts just right. Shame about the writing.

If you've not read The L-Shaped Room, do get a copy. Lots cheap on Amazon. And it's also in print, which is rare enough for the books I recommend as favourites! Jane Graham will stay with you for years, as will her L-shaped room.


  1. I've always found 'The L-Shaped Room' an interesting contrast to Margaret Drabble's 'The Millstone' - very similar era, both heroines intelligent single women who find themselves pregnant. But whereas Jane finds herself homeless then jobless, the heroine of 'The Millstone', Rosamond, has parents as conveniently absent as any in a children's story, far more supportive friends, and a job seemingly designed for a single mother. I make 'The Millstone' sound like a bad book, which it really isn't, but 'The L-Shaped Room' feels more real to me, whereas 'The Millstone' always seems to somewhat gloss over practical difficulties of single motherhood in the middle of the twentieth century, in order to make a point about not condemning the unmarried mother.

    Not that 'The L-Shaped Room' is without its problems - much as I love Aunt Addy, her role in solving Jane's problems is a little bit too neat.

  2. I agree about the reality of The L-Shaped Room ... so evocative of the era, and also so well written.

    It was read sometime last year on Radio 4 too (or was it the year before?) ... an added treat.

  3. I agree about the L-Shaped Room, I re-read all three of the series earlier this year, I found them dated in an endearing way. It made me think once again, how far things have changed and how fast. I think I did enjoy the other two just as much.


  4. I just read and watched the film of this in the past week, and adored it. I agree with much of what you said about the differences in the film, really unnecessary. But they all look and act how I imagined.

    Like Vivienne, I highly recommend The Millstone.

  5. Hi. Coming to this debate a bit late I'm afraid!I've recently read The L-Shaped Room and loved it and just posted a review on my blog. I'm not sure I need to read the other 2 in the series as it was perfect on it's own. It serves as a reminder of how far we have come as a nation with regards to various prejudices. I hope the Radio 4 play comes back soon! It's great you've got it on your 50 books list...everyone I've recommended it to has loved it.

  6. I loved this book when I first read it many years ago, but I can see that it has perhaps not aged well. SD


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