Review by Linda Hepworth

Publisher: Penguin Random House UK   14th May 2021

ISBN: 978-08575272955   Hardback

Dot Watson works in the London Transport Lost Property Office in Baker Street. She recognises it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that everything that’s lost belongs to someone and so, in a determined attempt to reunite each piece of lost property with its owner, on the Dijon-mustard-coloured label she attaches to each item, she meticulously includes as precise a description as she can. Without such idiosyncratic detail how would it be possible to, for example, distinguish one red handbag from another on the shelves in the cavernous basements of the office? But although she’s very good at the job she’s done for more than ten years, this isn’t where Dot had imagined she’d end up. In fact she now appears to be as lost as each one of the hundreds of items handed in to the office every day. When she was eight years old she had a clear vision of what her future would hold:  “First I’ll be a librarian, read all the books on the shelves, then I’m going to learn to speak five languages and travel all over the world, and then I’ll open my detective agency and solve complex international jewel heists.” However, having abandoned the life she was living in Paris when her father died, the only travelling she’s doing now is in her imagination, as she explores different parts of the world via the collection of ‘lost’ guidebooks she’s acquired through her job. 

Then along comes Mr Appleby, an elderly man looking for the leather holdall (‘sort of a golden syrup colour’) he’d left on the bus. He explains to Dot that it contained his late wife’s purse (‘bluey-lilac’) as well as a trowel and some bulbs (tulip) which he was planning to plant on her grave. But it’s really just the purse he wants back because it was her favourite and when he holds it he feels close to her. His profound sense of loss triggers something in Dot and she becomes determined to do everything she possibly can to reunite him with something which is clearly so precious to him. It’s a mission which will have unexpected repercussions for her. As the story unfolds the reasons behind the derailment of all her dreams and expectations gradually become clear. The reader accompanies her on her journey as she reassesses all that has happened to her and, in the process, discovers that it’s never too late to pursue your dreams.

My experience of reading this impressive debut novel provided a salutary reminder of how unwise it is to make assumptions! Looking at the cover of this book and reading the brief synopsis, when I started reading I was anticipating that it would probably be a quite moving but relatively light-hearted read, I certainly had no expectation that not only would it incorporate such a wide range of themes, but that it would explore them with such sensitivity and psychological integrity. In this thought-provoking story Helen Paris used her well-portrayed characters to explore many different aspects of loss – of loved ones, of relationships, of hopes and dreams, of treasured possessions, of our memories, of sense of self  – and how their lives had been affected, and often emotionally constrained, by their defensive attempts to avoid any further hurt. She then used them equally effectively to show that they could learn from those experiences, could learn to forgive themselves, and others, to let go of guilt and to expand their horizons. As Mr Appleby reflected, “Life gives us so much, chance, excitement and hope. But woven through it all is loss. If you try to pull out that thread, the whole thing unravels. Loss is the price we pay for love.” 

I loved how the author explored how just seeing, touching, or even smelling, certain objects, no matter how insignificant they may appear to others, can trigger a tsunami of memories for us, immediately conjuring up people, places, and experiences (positive or negative) from the past. As Dot (and other characters) discovered, the immediacy of our powerful reactions can provide enjoyment and comfort. However, even when they’re distressing and disturbing, if we don’t shy away from them they can allow us to re-examine past experiences and relationships, enabling us to begin to shift our perceptions of them so that they no longer hold us in their thrall. I admired how effectively the author captured this in her portrayal of Dot’s gradual emergence from the shadows of the past as she was forced to question the veracity of her memories of her childhood and the dynamic interactions between each member of her family. Although there were moments when this was excruciatingly painful, her willingness to face up to these new insights allowed her to open herself up to new experiences and to forge closer relationships with the people she loved. 

Although this story contains some dark, disturbing, and distressing themes, without in any way making light of the seriousness of them, the author introduced many humorous scenarios and observations throughout the narrative to offer a counterbalance. This meant that there were moments when I felt as though I was on an emotional roller-coaster, one moment feeling close to tears and the next laughing out loud but, from start to finish, always feeling engaged with Dot’s emotional journey. 

The inspiration for Helen Paris’s engaging and enjoyable debut novel was sparked by her experience of working in the Baker Street Lost Property Office for a week some years ago whilst doing some research for a theatre performance. At the time she was impressed by the level of care and attention, irrespective of the value of what was handed in, employees gave to trying to ensure that lost items were reunited with their owners and wanted this to be reflected in her storytelling … I think she’s succeeded admirably!