BY Matthew Turner in Books , Opinion | 22 FEB 24

Holly Pester’s ‘The Lodgers’ Explores Housing Instability

The poet’s debut novel explores the difficulties of tentative living arrangements against the backdrop of Britain’s ongoing housing crisis

BY Matthew Turner in Books , Opinion | 22 FEB 24

Last November, The Guardian reported that 160,000 people in England are crammed into unlicensed housing – places often hidden from view, overcrowded and extremely hazardous to the residents’ health. British poet and academic Holly Pester’s debut novel, The Lodgers (2024), is populated by a cast of such people, dwelling precariously on the edge of homelessness, all single women, some of them mothers. Women are most likely to be affected by the British housing crisis; research conducted by the Financial Times found that the average one-bedroom property in England was affordable for a person earning the male median salary. For someone earning the female median, it was unaffordable.

Though it is built upon this bleak social context, the book goes beyond kitchen sink drama to explore how external material circumstances, external environments, emotions, memories and imagination influence each other. The narrator, an unnamed woman, is trying to find evidence of her existence in her immediate environment. Lost and troubled, the book depicts the disruption of her identity that ensues when she can’t find anything.

After a long and arduous journey the woman drops her bags in the middle of an open-plan kitchen, in a flat she describes as having ‘buy-to-let laminate flooring’ and being ‘architecturally odd for the sake of marketable style’ all culminating in a sharp corner where the optimism of the place meets to disappear. This is not a home, it’s more like, as writer and academic Sam Johnson-Schlee depicts in his 2023 book Living Rooms, a commodity, wiped clean of human traces and the kind of personality that makes somewhere liveable.

The Lodgers book cover Holly Pester
Holly Pester, The Lodgers, 2024, book cover. Courtesy: Granta

The woman has moved back to her home town after some time away, to visit her mother, Moffa, who may or may not still live in the house just across the road. She is a stalking presence in the book, and the narrator brings her slowly into focus in fragments and vignettes, noting: ‘Moffa tried to make bread once… She was gone for five days.’ An aborted attempt to make a home perhaps. At first seeming sinister, disliked by her neighbours and neglectful as a mother due to her small-time acting career, she emerges finally as an anti-hero, ‘a beautiful local prize to some people, and an error that needed correcting to others.’ A bohemian, flamboyant character, Moffa often hosts parties that shake up the suburban staidness ‘composed of lilac nylon’ around her, and houses those in need ‘charging just enough for rent and wine’. She is at ease with all the things that disturb the woman: not having a partner, not having a job, not having a particularly clear future.

In parallel to her pursuit of Moffa, the narrator also recalls the house she lived in previously. She imagines the person who, she supposes, now lives there, whom she mothers and haunts, sometimes with erotic intensity. In his 2014 book Ghosts of My Life, Mark Fisher wrote that the ‘family is a haunted structure, an Overlook Hotel of presentiment and uncanny repetitions.’ This home bears a resemblance to the environment the narrator would have grown up in. It’s a single parent home where the mother, who looks strikingly similar to Moffa, has to work a variety of unstable jobs to make ends meet. Her ex-husband is endlessly threatening eviction. The woman often offers to look after this landlady’s child, unpaid domestic labour that ultimately distracts from her studies at college – the reason she is living there in the first place. What transpires is a sense of home at the expense of exploitation.       

Meanwhile, the narrator is preoccupied with her future: she wants to reconnect with her mother, have a job and a life, and to make sense of her past. What then, about her present? Nothing much is happening. The woman hardly exists within the logic the books sets out, leading her to speculate at one point: ‘Who are you beyond your living standards?’ Not a lot. Home and body live symbiotically – without the former the latter seems impossible – transforming her into a ghostly spectre. Her current landlord, Kav, is illegally subletting her a room and explains in a handwritten contract that she should not identify herself to neighbours and must remain quiet. The previous tenancy was just as tentative: a room for £27 each night, with the assumption she would not be present at weekends, and only to be used between 6pm and 9am, as the rest of time it was required by her landlady as a beauty treatment studio.

Held between past and future, moving from one home to another, it’s hard to locate the woman in her immediate surroundings. Both her inner and outer worlds are rootless, unsure whether she's ‘asleep or awake’ or if it’s ‘day or night’. In Doris Lessing’s 1963 short story ‘To Room Nineteen’, a housewife, wishing to break the bond between herself and the trappings of domestic space, rents an ordinary, anonymous hotel room away from her family home where she can simply sit and be alone. Over time, she feels when she's home that part of her is left in the room, and vice versa. In either place, she is left less of a person. Likewise, the narrator of The Lodgers is locked out of home both emotionally and physically – she can’t find herself in any of her tentative dwellings. By the end of the book we realise, much like the woman in ‘To Room Nineteen’, that she has run from the cliched ‘good life’ and dated ideas that an organised house equals an organised mind, to find that society has cruelly provided no alternative, only a dreamlike, untethered state of escape.  

Holly Pester portrait Eleanor Vonne Brown
Portrait of Holly Pester. Courtesy: Granta; photograph: Eleanor Vonne Brown

Reading The Lodgers, it’s hard to forget that Holly Pester is also a poet. She uses her craft to manipulate time and space, creating a rich, complex, layered world where past and future are difficult to parse from the present. This system of poetics has a further harrowing message. Disconnection from one’s environment is a business model: it keeps the housing market moving rather than encouraging people to establish roots or fully realise what they don’t have. In this way, people without homes are often living in a sublet reality: they have been priced out of the immediate present, and instead live in the more ethereal realms of past traumas and future dreams. The feeling is unreal.   

In this state of inertia, without a clear way forward, the woman anxiously waits, in the same way people in temporary accommodation wait; those paying too much rent wait for something cheaper. She is expecting someone whom she thinks will make life better. Like Godot, they never show up. Moffa could redeem herself and be the mother she always wanted, or perhaps Kav could return and turn her sparse, sad accommodation into a real home. While she can dream of their eventual appearance, she might always be waiting for a home to come along.

Holly Pester's The Lodgers is published by Granta 

Main image: Holly Pester, The Lodgers (detail), 2024, book cover. Courtesy: Granta 

Matthew Turner is a writer based in London. He is a lecturer at Chelsea College of Arts.