Map of Blue Book Balloon

7 February 2020

#Blogtour #Review - The 24-Hour Café by Libby Page

The 24-Hour Café
Libby Page
Orion, 23 January 2020
HB, 416pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance e-copy of The Twenty Four Hour Café and to Tracy Fenton at Compulsive Readers for inviting me to join the tour.

I've always been intrigued by the night and especially by those who are awake through it. I love the idea that while I doze in my warm bed, there are people in neon lit spaces working; travellers making their way by bus or train to who knows where; restless people sitting in airports surrounded by their luggage; a pack of Nighthawks out of Edward Hopper's dreams propping up a bleak bar. Recently I read about a woman living on the edge of London who, when she can't sleep, gets the Nightbus into town and visits a particular Soho cafe. Respect to her for that - I'm not THAT much of a night owl myself. Though I will stay up reading (as I did last night, when I just HAD to finish this book) I don't go out into it a lot, I'm more fascinated by the idea of the night. It's just fuel for the imagination and positively drips with atmosphere, glamour, sentiment and anticipation.

Of course, that attitude may reflect a degree of privilege on my part, as a man with a secure home who lives in a safe and sleepy English village (even if we do sometimes appear in Midsomer Murders). Other perspectives are available and often, of course, the night can be threatening, especially for women.

Both sides of that vibe feature in this new book by Libby Page. Hannah and Mona are waitresses, doing twelve hour shifts at Stella's café opposite Liverpool Street Station in the heart of London. The book takes us through Hannah's stint (midnight to noon) and then Mona's (round to midnight again). In the course of those 24 hours we are privy to their thoughts and memories, as well as the experiences of customers who come and go at Stella's, and some who return. Gradually, the picture fills out, telling Hannah's and Mona's story - the story of two friends who've drifted apart and which stands I think for so many trying to make a life in London.

Opening with the midnight handoff between their shifts (dancing to "Tutti Frutti" - 'it reminds them both of what it felt like to be is full of hope and ambition') we learn how Hannah came, barely in her 20s, to make it big as a singer, taking temporary jobs in the meantime. Similarly Mona, who has a passion for dancing. Approaching 30, still struggling, both women are aware that they don't have many more chances ('each year a new swathe of eager, bouncy, fame-hungry young performers heads for London') and other distractions threaten: living from one payday to the next, problems with housemates, illness and injury, all conspire againts the dedication and focus that's required for success - the need for practice, practice, practice, the dispiriting round of auditions leading nowhere, the effort necessary to canvass venues and network and follow up possibilities.

And in Hannah's case, her bad luck with men has also set her back, landing her with what seem to have been two superficial charmers only interested in themselves - something that has driven a wedge between her and Mona, who seems the more dedicated of the pair. This book is really a paean to friendship, to the support these women have shown each other over the years, from always showing up for the other's performances to tending for each other in periods of illness (Page makes a point in this book of showing where her protagonists have done this - for example Dan with his dying mother or Sonja and Timur who have waited so long, saving painstakingly for their wedding: 'At work she takes pride in being confident... behind the door of their flat she clings to him at night and asks him to brush her hair when she is unwell...') to simply offer support and a hug.

As we follow Hannah and Mona through the night, it becomes clear that the book is hinged around the future of their relationship, and that it is very much in doubt: grief, loss and anger come between them and may erase what they have been to each other. Page makes both women (as well as the other characters here!) very real, and one comes to understand what has happened and to ache for both of them (perhaps more for Mona, admittedly) and wish they could make up.

Coming and going through that long night and day (12 hours! I couldn't be on my feet working for 12 hours...) are many others: the student who finds himself homeless and shelters all night in the café, the gay couple who face separation due to immigration rules, the man and woman in their 60s who have found love late and are off on honeymoon, the woman who flees her home because she can't bond with her newborn baby. There are also less sympathetic people here - the couple who list what's wrong with London, the woman who stands in the café and screams. There are abusive customers and those who are merely rude. As I said, there are dangers in the night as well as glories.

All these stories and parts of stories - we don't get told everything - seem peculiarly fitting to a café where people kill time waiting for a train or a bus. Stella's is full of people on the cusp of things - waxing, waning; losing, gaining; never at rest (like Dan, some have nowhere to rest), but appraising their past and their future. A daytime customer has lost his job in the City but not told his wife. he come sin every day and sits with his laptop. The Big Issue seller outside has lost one life and is trying to build another. It's a fascinating patchwork of people, of love and friendship, loss and loneliness.

The language in this book is arresting, often beautiful ('The sun rises over London, but at the small table in Stella's, it sets on Joe and Haziq') and shows great insight ('It didn't mean I stopped caring about my friend, though; he just made me carrels with them'). Page uses its single location, narrow focus and 24 hour duration to explore universal themes of love, loss and friendship with great delicacy - and to introduce some great characters.

I'd strongly recommend!

About the Author

LIBBY PAGE is the author of the SUNDAY TIMES bestseller and runaway success of 2018, THE LIDO. THE LIDO has sold in over twenty territories around the world and film rights have been sold to Catalyst Global Media.

After writing, Libby’s second passion is outdoor swimming. Libby lives in London where she enjoys finding new swimming spots and pockets of community within the city. She and her sister run a blog and Instagram account @theswimmingsisters, documenting their swims and the benefits of outdoor exercise for mental health.

About the Book

Day and night Stella’s Café opens its doors for the lonely and the lost, the morning people and the night owls. It is many things to many people but most of all it is a place where life can wait at the door. A place of small kindnesses. A place where anyone can be whoever they want, where everyone is always welcome.

Meet Hannah and Mona: best friends, waitresses, dreamers. They work at Stella’s but they dream of more, of leaving the café behind and making their own way in life.

Come inside and spend twenty-four hours at Stella’s Café; a day when Hannah and Mona’s friendship will be tested, when the community will come together and when lives will be changed...

For more about the book, see the publisher's website here.

The tour continues with reviews from some excellent bloggers (check out the poster below).

The 24-Hour Café is available from your local bookshop (or online via Hive Books which supports local bookshops) but can also be ordered from Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones and Amazon.