I’m really delighted today to be joining the blog tour for Lost Property, the debut novel by Helen Paris, and to share my review. Published as an ebook and audiobook in April 2021 by Doubleday/Transworld (I notice the kindle version is only 99p at the time of writing) and in hardcover in May 2021, the paperback was published on 14th April 2022. My thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for the invitation and support – this was one of those wonderful books I might have entirely missed had Anne’s email not appeared in my inbox – and to both her and the publishers for my advance reading e-copy.
One lost purse. One lost woman. A chance encounter that changes everything.
Dot Watson has lost her way. Wracked with guilt and struggling with grief, she has tucked herself away in the London Transport Lost Property office, finding solace in the process of cataloguing misplaced things. It’s not glamorous or exciting, but it’s solitary – just the way Dot likes it.
That is, until elderly Mr Appleby walks through the door in search of his late wife’s purse and Dot immediately feels a connection to him. Determined to help, she sets off on an extraordinary journey, one that could lead Dot to reclaim her life and find where she truly belongs…
At one time, Dot Watson wanted to be a librarian – instead, she’s worked for the last twelve years in the Baker Street Lost Property Department of Transport for London, satisfying her innate need for order through cataloguing, filing and organising other people’s random and lost belongings. She pays meticulous attention to detail, attaching dijon mustard tags, adding precise descriptions, ensuring the items can be found when required – she understands that memories are attached to every item, even those without apparent value, and takes immense pride in returning them to their grateful owners. There was a time when she had a life of her own – a happy childhood, a precious time in Paris, a love affair – but now her life is empty, her mother in a nursing home no longer recognising her, her sister constantly attempting to organise her and force her to change, her evenings often spent reorganising her precious collection of travel guides.
She despairs at the casualness of the team she works with – the most wonderfully observed collection of individuals – but reluctantly agrees to a night out with Anita, the closest she has to a friend. Although the night itself is joyous at first, it also becomes the catalyst for a flood of difficult and long-buried memories – her home is no longer the comfortable place she needs it to be, and (although it provides it for a while) her place of work proves not to be a place of refuge either. She remembers Mr Appleby – a customer who had lost a holdall (the colour of golden syrup), containing tulip bulbs, a trowel, and the women’s purse (bluey-lilac) that holds so many memories of his late wife – and, using the detective skills she acquired and honed in games with her much-loved father, sets off to find him and return his memory-laden possessions.
I enjoyed every moment I spent between this book’s pages – and although it’s a few weeks since I read it, there are moments that still live with me. Dot herself – and hers is the clear and distinctive voice of the story – is a superbly drawn character with her acute and witty observations, her general air of oddness and eccentricity, the essential sadness at her core. The supporting cast is quite superb too – every well-drawn individual who works in or walks into the Lost Property office, her sister Philippa with her apparently perfect life and her wiping and swiping, Mr Appleby with his gentleness and quiet wisdom, her mother with her brief moments of clarity.
The book’s gentle humour is just perfectly judged, drawing on Dot’s acute observations and through her distinctive voice – and the more emotional moments often moved me to tears, although the book itself was tremendously uplifting and shot through with love and hope. I’m not always a fan of stories that take a surreal turn – and this one certainly does at one point – but I was so invested in Dot’s life that I found it entirely comfortable, exceptionally touching, and wholly appropriate.
This book essentially examines loss – of objects, of emotional connections, of oneself – and the many and complicated facets of memory. And I thought it was quite wonderful – without question, this will be one of my books of the year.
A note from Helen: “Although entirely a work of fiction Lost Property was influenced by the short time I spent in Lost Property, Baker Street shadowing different employees as research for a performance. Whether it’s a designer bag left in the back of a black cab or a woolly scarf forgotten on the number 44 bus, loss touches all of us. It is pervasive, and it never ends – as Dot Watson might say, ‘It’s reliable like that.’
I have always been fascinated by the memories that objects hold, how even the most every day object – a pipe, a bag, a small purse – can help us recall a place or a person or a particular time in life. Objects can be totemic, portals to the past. Tactile memory – the memories triggered by holding familiar objects – can be profound. Some objects almost let us time-travel back to the places we yearn to be, to the people no longer with us, and linger there, if only for a moment.”
About the author
Helen Paris worked in the performing arts for two decades, touring internationally with her London-based theatre company Curious. After several years living in San Francisco and working as a theatre professor at Stanford University, she returned to the UK to focus on writing fiction. As part of her research for a performance called ‘Lost & Found’, Paris shadowed employees in the Baker Street Lost Property office for a week, an experience that sparked her imagination and inspired this novel. Lost Property is her first novel.