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Book review: The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Patrick Hamilton has been enjoying somewhat of a renaissance in recent years – at least in literary terms, for the man himself died many years ago, finally succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver at the relatively young age of 58. Apparently, he rather liked a bottle of whiskey with his food did Mr Hamilton: a bottle with his breakfast, his lunch and his dinner.

In his day – post war England – Hamilton was somewhat of a literary superstar, up there with the likes of George Orwell. Best known today for his west-end smash Rope, Patrick Hamilton was undoubtedly one of his age’s must-read writers. Often compared to writers such as Dickens and Gissing, Hamilton’s millieu is a sinister world whose beings are dominated purely by impulse. It’s a scary place.

In The Slaves of Solitude we are plunged into the dark world of the war-time boarding house. The Rosamund Tea Rooms is home to a collection of lost souls, amongst whom we are introduced to the novel’s heroine, Miss Roach, a lady, not yet forty, but one edging towards spinsterhood. Amid wartime black-outs and uncertainty, Hamilton creates a quite ghastly environment of silent suppers and draughty bed-sitting rooms. The inmates of this particular boarding house are victims of circumstance. They eat, they drink and they sleep. They exist.

In Mr Thwaites he also creates arguably one of the most mean-spirited characters to stalk the pages of English Literature. Bully of the dining room, the tyrannical, blustering Thwaites dominates every page of the novel in which he appears. And when German émigré Vicki Kugelman joins the inmates - at Miss Roach’s invitation - it soon becomes apparent, that a highly dangerous Trojan horse has landed in this claustrophobic, madhouse. Mr Thwaites and Vicki are the neighbours truly from hell.

Throw in an assembly of spinsters and itinerant guests together with an ‘inconsequential’ US army ‘lootenant,’ and you have a cast of characters that would not look out of place in any shop of horrors. A tale of psychological torment then unfolds as Miss Roach realises her Germanic friend is not at all what she had once seemed. Set against the constant nerve-jangling threat of air-raids, pitch black nights and escapes in alcohol, the Rosamund Tea Shops becomes a place of unbearable tension.

In The Slaves of Solitude Hamilton creates an unprecedented vision of bleakness and human malice. Hamilton appears to be suggesting that cruelty and spite are a part of the human condition, that there is indeed such a phenomenon as motiveless malignity. But is it perhaps Miss Roach who is unhinged? Throughout the novel the reader naturally sympathises with the prim, eminently sensible and virtuous ex-teacher, but as we progress, is there not the merest of hints that here is a lady whose thoughts and actions oft times verge on the neurotic? It’s a wonderfully constructed conundrum.

This novel is often described as the author’s masterpiece. Nearly. Had it not been for its somewhat contrived ending that brings to mind Cinderella, this novel could happily have flirted with perfection. Nevertheless, The Slaves of Solitude is a staggering achievement. Turning every one of its pages brings a wave of dread. Phew. What a relief to be back in the present day, far, far away from the Rosamund Tea Rooms. Bravo Patrick.