Anyone who has ever worried about how they will afford their rent or mortgage knows intimately the deep-seated fear of instability. People put up with small and large compromises just to have a roof over their heads, and it’s even worse when compounded by the sinking feeling that there aren’t that many options.
In the beginning of the timely and painfully observant debut novel “Three Rooms” by Jo Hamya, a young British woman of color rents a room in Oxford in 2018, in a building with blue plaques on it, signifying that significant figures once lived there. Her neighbor across the hall is a Brexit supporter. The unnamed narrator, a research assistant, is preoccupied with the state of her country and desperately wants her own flat, but that seems unattainable to her, and she questions her complicity in supporting the system that keeps her down in the first place.
“Each time I scrimped and saved, swapped a £2.35 Americano for a 99p filter coffee, the grand irony of paying close to £10,000 to take up rooms in a place responsible for spawning the government that daily diminished my ability to afford a mortgage or the cost of rent was not lost on me,” the narrator reflects. “It was all, generally, going to hell.” A space of her own is tantalizingly out of reach; even attempting to make her room smell like home is erased when “any absence longer than two days returned it to its original odor: fetid carpet, repainted walls.” Yet other people around her seem much more comfortable claiming where they belong. A girl she meets at the English department faculty party, Ghislane (whose father wrote a hit song of the same name), posts a selfie on Instagram, taken in front of the building where the narrator lives: “I looked back at my screen — she was radiant around it, and it looked better. When the house belonged to her, it was a magnificent thing.”
The narrator’s sense of displacement is even worse when she moves to London and lives on a stranger’s sofa for 80 pounds a month, working on “a casual contract” as a copy editor at a society magazine. Her flatmate gives her a tour of her new home, pointing out “a kitchen with grease-stained walls and jewelry tools on the counter; a bathroom with decomposing tiles.” The narrator’s only haven in the apartment is the shared couch, a place where she looks at social media and the news and reads the kind of books people strategically stage on Instagram. Her job is as precarious as her housing situation. “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?” her flatmate bluntly asks her.
“Three Rooms” is an excellent evisceration of contemporary life, and Hamya homes in on how social media allows for groupthink. Ghislane tells her she stopped using Twitter “because it became impossible to know what I thought on it. I read one thing I agreed with, and ten seconds later, a wholly convincing argument contravened what I’d only just established. Imagine being told you’re wrong all the time.” The narrator retweets other people instead of creating her own original content.
But as the book progresses, the narrator begins to assert herself and share her own opinions, challenging a privileged white feminist author during a book talk who claims that “success is innate” (yet still wanting the author to like her) and debating with the art director at her job, who accuses her of just reciting headlines. In one of the most moving scenes, the narrator visits Tate Britain after losing her job and before boarding a train to move in with her parents, untethered from the life she was trying to build in the city. She looks at a painting and is distracted by two men discussing it in front of her. “I did not want the implication of another person’s thought. I ignored them. I wanted something else — to see the painting as it truly was; to have a landscape in my mind’s eye, alone.”
“Three Rooms” offers scathing commentary on societal contradictions, including how easy it is to exist online, but how hard it is for so many women to claim their own views or root themselves in a physical space in real life. Without privacy and ample time for reflection, something that’s hard to come by without the right resources, it’s challenging to have a sense of self.
From Ghislane, who poses in the society magazine with a banner that says YES TO THE REVOLUTION, to the feminist author who promotes a mode of accomplishment she never had to fight for, Hamya suggests, our fast-paced, information-dense world is full of people who profit off of the labor of others. In dissenting, her narrator creates room for herself — if not, in the end, a room of her own.
By Jo Hamya
Mariner, 208 pages, $25
Michele Filgate is a writer and the editor of “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About.”