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The Lodgers by Holly Pester: A smart, superbly crafted story on the state of a nation

The Lodgers marks Pester out as a writer to watch and should feature on many awards shortlists this year

The Lodgers
Author: Holly Pester
ISBN-13: 9781783789832
Publisher: Granta
Guideline Price: £14.99

It is a rare debut that manages to tell a uniquely personal story while illuminating the problems of a generation. Holly Pester’s The Lodgers is such a book, reading more like a modern classic than a first novel as it takes on the cost-of-living crisis in Britain through the voice of a woman in her 30s who returns to the small English town where she grew up in the hope of beginning again.

Renting a room in a new-build flat overlooking her childhood home, the unnamed narrator reflects on the personal and wider societal circumstances that have led to her current impasse, which sounds like many other millennial novels, until you factor in style. The bite and freshness of Pester’s prose, her exacting, layered sentences, have the ring of a serious writer who knows exactly what she wants to say. It’s the kind of novel with no fluff; every line feels earned.

This will not be a surprise to anyone who has read Pester’s Forward Prize-shortlisted debut collection of poetry, Comic Timing, the deadpan title of which is reminiscent of the Irish writer Nicole Flattery. The comparison holds for the book as a whole, page after page of sharp, finely-spun observations on modern life that contain flashes of humour so droll you almost miss them: “The unfortunate characteristic of all regional towns is that they are very definitely in Britain.”

Pester is a poet, novelist and academic who has worked in sound art and performance, with original dramatic work on BBC Radio 4, and collaborations with Serpentine Galleries, Women’s Art Library and the Wellcome Collection. Her poetry has appeared in Poetry Review, The White Review, Poetry London and Believer Magazine. Her fiction has been published in Granta and anthologised in Protest.


Pester’s background as a poet comes through in the images of ordinary life documented throughout The Lodgers, “a sputniky barbecue that was so rusty it made my teeth sing to be near it,” or a woman whose “lips went like a set of pink drawers sliding in and out”. The abstract plot and inventiveness with form, more of which later, show a playfulness at work but the novel is also assertively political as it charts the rootlessness and uncertainty of the narrator’s existence.

This is generation rent in high definition, from the minor indignities, “pay the rent into this bank account, but don’t say rent on the reference, say birthday money or something,” to the larger, more profound questions of identity and belonging, the psychological damage of only ever being a walk-on role in someone else’s show: “Lodger, a particularly mortal word. Lodger, a slightly naughty word. Lodger. A critterish word. Something furry crawls out of it.”

The latest flatshare has a mysteriously absent occupant, known only as Kav, so most of the action comes from the narrator’s attempts to visit her mother, Moffa, after a number of years away from her all-encompassing presence.

A single parent who spent a lot of time on the road for her career as an actor – “Big women with loud, diverging voices; Amandas, Phèdres, Medeas, Lady Etceteras” – Moffa’s style of motherhood, in a stunning metaphor, is presented as an archetype of the lodger model: “That is where I learned to lodge, I mean, adapt and hide my needs rather than dig down, simply hover without much substance, meekly occupy, as the tenant of the tenant, it’s how I was born.”

The narrator’s quest for belonging, for a place of her own, is darkly mirrored by a second narrative, where she visualises, in great detail, the life of the lodger who replaced her in her previous accommodation. There is the sense that these sections, related in an intimate second person voice, are part act of imagination and part exorcism of the narrator’s own experiences of sharing a house with a single mother and her young daughter, who in turn shadow the narrator’s past.

Pester’s characterisation is astute and full of emotional voltage. The mother is a “dazzlingly feminine” beautician who uses the narrator’s bedroom during the day for work, while the child comes through beautifully in all her barbaric need and love. This line had me thinking of the work of Anne Enright: “At the breakfast bar the girl is trying to brush her hair in the hand-held mirror but it’s really a performance, she is finding her way to herself.”

The Lodgers marks Pester out as a writer to watch and should feature on many awards shortlists this year. It’s a smart, superbly crafted story on the state of a nation, told with an appropriately mordant tone, because really, when you can’t afford to live well, the joke wears pretty thin.

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts