Well Educated, Well Employed, and a Paycheck Away From Disaster

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By Katie Kitamura

THREE ROOMS
By Jo Hamya

Many rooms haunt Jo Hamya’s debut novel, “Three Rooms.” There are the narrator’s temporary residences, and there are offices, university halls, houses of Parliament, internet platforms. But no room haunts the novel more than those in London’s Grenfell Tower, a social housing block that was destroyed in a fire in 2017, killing more than 70 people. The scale of that national tragedy is a mental obstacle for the narrator, the thing she cannot wrap her head around. It becomes a symbol of the wrongness and instability of the world she lives in, where “it was all, generally, going to hell.”

Hamya’s novel follows a young, unnamed woman of color armed with multiple degrees and bitter experience of the job market. It follows in the tradition of recent novels explicitly concerned with the precarity of academia and publishing: among them Christine Smallwood’s “The Life of the Mind” and Raven Leilani’s “Luster.” Widening the focus to the work force in general, you might add Hilary Leichter’s “Temporary,” Catherine Lacey’s “The Answers,” Halle Butler’s “The New Me” and YZ Chin’s “Edge Case.”

Though they range in form and genre, these novels uniformly feature female protagonists, which seems no accident; the pandemic has underscored the degree to which the position of women in the work force remains insecure. Precarity is nothing new, but the precarity of the educated and the middle class is one more symptom of a system careering ever faster toward disaster. The narrator of “Three Rooms” is caught between awareness of her privilege and a growing disbelief at how little it now buys.

Hamya’s novel is polemical in nature, a notoriously difficult form that indicates the scope of her ambition. She documents the daily grind of temporary employment and accommodation, from the narrator’s sublet in Oxford, to the couch she sleeps on while working at a society magazine in London, to the childhood bedroom she returns to in the end. At times the novel’s concerns can feel forced into the narrative and the dialogue, resulting in a flatness that makes both Hamya’s fiction and its message less convincing than they would be otherwise.

But in its finer moments, “Three Rooms” made me think of the 1979 Japanese novel “Territory of Light,” by Yuko Tsushima, recently translated into English by Geraldine Harcourt. Also about women in the workplace, it too centers on the question of real estate, the rooms we have access to and the rooms we occupy. It’s a scathing critique of Japanese society, achieved through quiet and relentlessly exact observation, and Hamya’s novel is most successful when it operates in this same mode. Much of what her narrator tracks is financial — her budgets, payroll schedule, the astonishing casualness with which her magazine salary is announced: “It’s a £65 day rate, the managing editor said in my first week. Sorry, I should have mentioned.”

“Three Rooms,” like Olivia Laing’s “Crudo,” Patricia Lockwood’s “No One Is Talking About This” and Lauren Oyler’s “Fake Accounts,” compresses the noise of contemporary life into a record of recent events: Grenfell Tower, Boris Johnson, Brexit. But personal and everyday occurrences take up equal space in the narrator’s consciousness, and are precisely and beautifully rendered. A spilled cup of tea and the stain it leaves in the narrator’s rented flat (“the patches of umber blossoming from out of the carpet”) is a reminder of just how exposed she is: “I’m going to have to pay for this stain out of my deposit.”

Even as she lives in this state of permanent constriction, the narrator is constantly surrounded by the truly privileged — the public school boys and the children of celebrities, individuals who take up space with supreme confidence, whether in the halls at Oxford or the tiles of an Instagram feed. The narrator repeatedly finds herself adjacent to the very institutions that exclude her; as her flatmate cruelly observes, “Don’t you think it’s weird that you spent a year giving yourself to the place that started the careers of people that openly disdain you, and now you’ve gone to work for a publication that exalts them?”

The narrator has a conflicted relationship to entitlement, which she describes as “an unappealing characteristic, but not one I could truly say I had no sympathy with.” She is sometimes mistaken for a Tory, and endures a lot of lecturing from characters in positions of real security, who chastise her for wanting the very things they take for granted. Even as a brown face in majority-white rooms, she is constantly reminded by her white acquaintances of the privileges she does enjoy. That these rebukes adopt the language of social justice is part of the understated humor of “Three Rooms.”

The narrator absorbs these comments, but remains undeterred in her pursuit of a room that can be called her own. The novel’s sting is in the insistent modesty of her demands, proof of the constraints placed on her imagination. Probably the most transgressive thing she does is buy a Molton Brown face wash after using it at her flatmate’s parents’ home, a small act of aspiration that will mean “forgoing all thought of lunch for a few days.”

“Three Rooms” invokes the reality of living in a world where a reasonable demand is resolutely categorized as unreasonable. “When did it become ridiculous,” the narrator wonders, “to think that a stable economy and a fair housing market were reasonable expectations?” She is criticized for the audacity of her ordinary desire, for the Molton Brown soap, for an apartment “I could have dragged a sofa into, painted … whatever color I wanted, stayed in long enough to find inviting colleagues over for dinner and drinks a worthwhile task.”

Eventually, even these hopes are neutered. As the book draws to a close, the narrator retreats to the third of the titular rooms, in her childhood home, “a house with thin walls” that “would not be mine, either.” The narrator can’t help seeing this as an admission of failure, a fall from “the highest echelons the country had to offer”; in the train station, en route to her parents’ house, she wants to ask of the crowd, “Am I invisible to you?”

In looking for accommodation, the narrator has been looking for a place that is not merely physical, but also psychological. She seeks space to unfold, to articulate the parameters of her being. On the final page, a passage from Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” (from which the epigraph is also taken) rushes through the narrator’s head: “It was a straight, dark bar, a shadow shaped something like the letter I.” She declares: “All year there had been a sound rising in me, I had never said it right. I stood up and over the stained seats, the smeared windows, into the carriage, screamed — I.” That brief, hard-won speech is met with the train’s indifferent rumbling, as it continues to bear her home.

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