The Tyranny of Lost Things by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is, at a glance, the perfect summer book. The book is set in the heat of 2011’s summer, with the London riots playing out in the background. It follows Harmony, who is in her 20s, as she returns to her old family home. But her home turns from a hippy commune into a booze-soaked houseshare, with more than a hint of hopelessness.
It feels odd to be writing a review of a book so perfectly connected with summer, when all I can hear is the rain against the skylight near my desk. Yet The Tyranny of Lost Things is able to cut through my rather drab surroundings. It does so by linking in to nostalgia for summer. It creates a memory of summer that is more a thing of fiction than reality. But it is filled with Bohemian dreams and a suffocating permanence. A hint of pent-up anger bleeds into a need for change at the same time.
This contrast makes it the perfect book for summer, especially if read in London. As a coming-of-age novel, I seriously doubt anyone over the age of 20 could read it without feeling nostalgic for nights out. The book showcases a deep love of London and youthful enjoyment. But despite that, it does not shy away from the city and society’s flaws, both now and in the past.
That past, for all its rose-tinted nostalgia, has left a firm shadow over more than just Harmony.
There is more than a hint of comedy to the novel, yet far from feeling derivative, it adds to the sense of nostalgia. The nostalgia in The Tyranny of Lost Things might link back to the ‘80s, but it also draws on more recent events. It explores the almost constant sense that people used to have more fun than they do currently. Perhaps that is why I love the novel so much. It does not drown in sentimentalism, but uses nostalgia to brilliant effect. Thus, it manages to both frame the other themes, and highlight generational changes and conflict.
That truthfulness is key to the novel’s success. It does not feel like an escape into a perfect world, and so is not merely an engaging distraction or pipe dream. Instead, it blends moments of hilarity with a keen critique of society. Harmony is constantly trying to emulate a sense of the carefree decadence of her parents’ generation, or at least a rose-tinted idea of it. Yet living in a city with impossible rents and a stagnant job market makes it rather hard at time.
Impressively, the social commentary is not simply aimed at the current issues of an unequal economic system.
This can lead into comedy. An example is the scene where Harmony spray-paints the soles of her cheap shoes. In doing so, she tries to mimic the £400 version that was popular at the time, to meet her housemate’s mum for cocktails at Claridge’s. This leads to her shoes being complimented by an oligarch. She then becomes “tempted to compliment the old man on his taste in hardware store spray paint”.
Comedy pervades the novel and carefully balances caricature with very believable anecdotes. But it is not simple comedy, for there is a constant undercurrent of the power imbalances at play. These power imbalances might seem linked to looks. Yet it is clear that even if one can look the part, it is far harder to feel at home and really fit. This sense of being an outsider links into the wider aspect of Harmony feeling separated from other people by her past trauma.
Impressively, the social commentary is not simply aimed at the current issues of an unequal economic system. In fact, it highlights how generational it has become. For instance, it should seem ludicrous that in 20 odd years a house could increase in value so much that it becomes an investment that has paid off.
The mention of house prices gently nudges back at the pervading sense of how things were so much freer and fun in the past. This is not just a way to highlight the broken housing market and generational wealth gap. It is also brought up in a flippant reference to the cost of mental health services. This both shows the attitude of many towards mental health, but also the failing of NHS provisions for it.
This ties into a wider exploration of mental health. It works extremely well in showing the range of ways it affects people. But it also reiterates how hard it is to know what someone is going through, just by their appearance and behaviour. In Harmony’s case, she is deeply affected by trauma from her past, and as the novel progresses more is revealed.
That past, for all its rose-tinted nostalgia, has left a firm shadow over more than just Harmony. As that shadow becomes clearer in aspects it also becomes more complex. This mystery provides the novel with an unputdownable flow that is very hard to resist. This coupled with the wry social commentary and devotional focus on London, creates a book that drags you into a world of summer excitement. Yet it never feels like a paper-thin narrative fit only for a single summer.
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