Three Rooms by Jo Hamya

“I was no longer sure what I was allowed to want. Everything I had been raised to desire, had, at some point, become passé, but no one had told me. There was a chasm between my expectations and the reality I had to exist in which no one else seemed to grasp.”

In theory, Three Rooms should have been my kind of read. Like the novel’s unnamed protagonist I have a useless degree in literature and I seem intent on pursuing an MA in an equally impractical subject. The way Jo Hamya writes about the academic world reminded me of how frustrating it is. Yet, whereas I appreciated the author’s criticism of this world, I found her writing to be weighed down by literary and highbrow references that will be only accessible to readers moving in similarly rarefied circles (in other words, graduates, ideally, from elite universities).
The novel is very much style over character, something that may appeal to fans of Rachel Cusk, Deborah Levy, or Zadie Smith (which I happen not to be). The novel’s nameless narrator is a twenty-something Oxford-graduate woman of color. Lacking a name, a personality, and an appearance our protagonist is a generic millennial. I had a hard time sympathizing with her given that she first works at Oxford University as a teaching assistant and once the school year is over she finds a temporary gig as a copyeditor for a high-society magazine. The only two characters who remind her that she is far more privileged than many other people her age are white and or middle-class women, and their comment is just meant to show how hypocritical they are.
The writing is dense. There are no equation marks (quelle surprise) and the paragraphs have few if any breaks. The conversations our narrator has with others punctuate her inner-monologue in an often unclear way (was someone saying that to her? Was she thinking it herself?). The specialized language and abundance of intellectual references and academic theories embedded in the narrative made reading this novel almost a chore. I doubt I would have finished it if it weren’t for the fact that it was an advance copy from netgalley.
As I pointed out with Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This if you write too specifically about the internet, social media, apps, and the likes, much of what you write of will feel dated within a few months. Hamya’s debut novel is set in 2018, so there were many sections in her story that felt like ‘old news’. The protagonist allegedly cares a lot about politics, she is passionately against Brexit and Boris Johnson, and yet, she was also too ‘busy’ moving to vote. Really?
Once again millennials are being portrayed as all talk no action. They go on and on about social issue but they are often too self-involved to make an actual stand or difference when given an opportunity. Our narrator is too occupied overanalyzing everything around her. Her navel-gazing mostly consists of platitudes about social media and other topical subjects: how it is affecting our self-perception, the performance of authenticity and the self, the commodification of feminism…As with Rooney’s not-so-normal main characters from NP, this protagonist is not like the people around her. There are a few instances in which she just happens to be the only ‘voice of reason’, while everyone is too busy following the herd. Yet, while she is quick to judge others for being snobs or privileged she is blind to her own fortunate circumstances. Yes, she has a brief stint sleeping on someone’s couch but 1) she is not on the verge of homelessness or destitutions as her parents have told her that she can stay with them whenever 2) she has experience working as a research assistant at OXFORD and also as a copyeditor. Most of the people I know who like me have graduated in humanities now work minimum wage customer service jobs (often with 0 hours contracts). How could I believe that Hamya’s protagonist was more ‘woke’ than others when she actually asks a cleaner “what’s the plan after cleaning?”.
In spite of the novel’s premise and title the story takes place in ‘two rooms’. We never learn much about our protagonist or her relationship to her parent(s)/hometown. We also never learn much about her jobs. The novel goes and on about Brexit, something I wish had never happened and certainly not something I would want to read extensively about.
Three Rooms gives novels like My Year of Rest and Relaxation a nod, but in a way that seemed to almost poking fun at this ‘alienated women’ trend….which—I’m not sure why—annoyed me. While reading about Hamya’s narrator talking about Moshfegh’s novel I actually found myself wishing I was reading that instead. The unnamed protagonist here is not half as witty or cutting as Moshfegh’s one.
Lastly, reading this novel reminded me of everything that is wrong with the academic world and it also made me realize how much I hate the existence of elite universities.

Just because Hamya’s novel ‘rubbed’ me the wrong way does not mean that you should not give it a try, especially if you happen to like this brand of satire, which is both stylized and intellectual.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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