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Review of "The Lodgers" by Holly Pester: A Critical Look at the Dire Effects of the Housing Crisis

Review of “The Lodgers” by Holly Pester: A Critical Look at the Dire Effects of the Housing Crisis


Poet Olly Pester’s first collection, Comic Timing, was a finalist for the Forward best first collection award in 2021. She gained experience through chaotic open mic nights and has developed a strong interest in the distinction between delivery and performance. According to Pester, both are crucial in any poetry reading or written work. In a 2021 interview with Frieze magazine, she explained that while they may seem interchangeable, she likes to keep in mind that the text is always present and serves as a score or contract. It’s no surprise, then, that her debut fiction novel, The Lodgers, excels on the page; it can be considered a poet’s novel in this regard.

The narrator, who is unnamed and disorganized, shares that as a young girl she often daydreamed about climbing into small spaces like a piano stool or matchbox, and living there. She is exhausted from traveling all day and is moving into a new flat that resembles a triangular sandwich package. She has sublet the flat from a paranoid boy whom she has never met. The details of the arrangement have a playful tone, but there is an underlying sense of anxiety as the room does not feel real to her. The glass smells of dirty hair and the window only offers a view of a still town at night, representing the source of boredom in her life.

From this point forward, everything – from the possibility of unexpectedly sharing the space with another tenant, to a lease that instructs her to transfer rent payments directly to a stranger’s bank account, disguised as “birthday money” – will feel temporary, unstable, and unsettling. She appears unable to make plans and stick to them. We learn all of this within the first few pages. It’s amusing, but also not. She will later confess that her adulthood has been characterized in this manner: “Each previous life was just a brief tale to add to my collection.” Her return to this town – not her first – will be marked by all those past failures.

Upon her arrival and introduction, the narrator immediately shifts her focus to another woman who will soon take over the room that she recently vacated. This woman will live uncomfortably with a single mother and a lively young girl who is described as having a “nearly animal brain”. While this woman is not entirely made up, she is also not entirely based on the narrator’s own experiences. Throughout the story, she is referred to as “you” rather than by a specific name. This is less an act of empathy and more of a blending of identities. Just as we begin to settle into this second narrative, a third one is introduced – the narrator’s relationship with her absent mother, Moffa, who is described as a chaotic narcissist and neglectful parent. Her neighbors even go so far as to say she “lived like a pig”.

The women’s narratives are like living creatures, constantly moving and intertwining with each other. They mirror and explain each other, creating a complex web of connections. Just when you think you understand, they shift and lead us towards unexpected and sometimes contradictory conclusions. Despite the chaos, their sharpness is undeniable. Occasionally, they align and then quickly diverge to retrieve something from a different angle. This narrative style may be momentarily disorienting, but it perfectly captures the lively essence of the stories and is often used for dark humor.

Pester’s changes in structure – from past to present, present to an alternate world – are both direct and graceful, much like her writing style. She has a preference for listing out objects that are either absurd or broken, personal shortcomings, and additional contractual perks that you can enjoy as a guest in someone else’s home – an outsider, an unsettling necessity. These perks include “unlimited biscuits from the purple tin”. Early on, in the sandwich-package flat with its MDF table, there is an actual list of items (which even includes a stain). Later on, a humorous account of daily interactions will result in a list that could be considered a poem, filled with the scents and emotions of living in that space.

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As the established society continues to function, those who reside below the surface of events struggle to survive, much like sunken boats teetering between mud and water. For those living precariously, squeezing themselves into a minimal existence in the cheapest available space, a sense of belonging is a luxury. However, this precariousness can have a trickle-down effect, as pointed out by Pester. In this system, the landlord, facing similar struggles as the lodger, passes on her difficulties. As a result, the narrator’s ideal self must vacate her room during the day for her landlady’s secondary job as a wellness massage therapist.

Thanks to Moffa’s approach to parenting, the storyteller has never encountered anything resembling a family – only a type of emotional instability. As a result, she is able to describe the experience of living on the periphery of other people’s lives as “unalienating”. The entire book explores the intricacies and desires behind such judgments. What does it feel like to both desire and not desire to live close but separate from others? The Lodgers is a thought-provoking, melancholic, and humorously serious exploration of this fundamental question.

Source: theguardian.com