Three rooms. By Jo Hamya. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 208 pages; $ 25. Cap Jonathan; £ 12.99
VIRGINIA WOOL felt that a woman needed money and her own room to write fiction. The anonymous narrator of Jo Hamya’s first novel aspires to more living space, but for more prosaic reasons: “the end goal that I wanted, through all the necessary work, was to be able to afford myself an apartment, not just a room, then move in and invite friends over for dinner ”. During a year filled with precarious jobs, low wages and rented digs, she painfully realizes that her small dream might be unachievable.
The story begins in the fall of 2018, when the narrator arrives at Oxford to begin a nine-month contract as a post-doctoral research assistant. She moves into a “borrow room” in a house owned by a university and spends her days working and roaming the city. She knows she’s come a long way – “you’re a woman, you’re a brunette, you’ve made it here” – but despite her efforts to fit in, she feels like a stranger.
She doesn’t fare much better when she trades Oxford for London and academia for “real world work.” Once again, she doesn’t have a permanent job or a fixed address, just a stranger couch and a short-term job as an editor for a company magazine. She finds herself sidelined by her colleagues, despised by her roommate and increasingly worried about her dwindling resources and her dying prospects. When her contract is not renewed and she exceeds her welcome as a tenant, she moves into her third bedroom, with her parents outside the capital. Now she feels defeated, but lowering her expectations and reassessing her plans may be her only chance to move forward.
“Three Rooms” presents some of the typical early excesses. The narrator’s reflections can border on navel-gazing; her fascination with a glamorous Oxford student becomes boring. Nonetheless, the novel evolves into a clever and original examination of privilege and belonging in 21st century England. His account of thwarted progress proves to be gripping, enriched as it is by judicious observations and insightful meditations on the trials of modern life and the state of the nation.
And the narrator’s frankness is refreshing. Some acquaintances emphasize the ironies of ambitions like hers, as when her roommate asks her: went to work for a publication that exalts them? It is a nuanced portrait of a woman in search of stability and an adult identity in a world strewn with obstacles.
This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the title “Home sweet home”