“The city that never sleeps and neither does Stella’s. A glowing red sign marks out the cafe that serves fish and chips, bangers and mash and American pancakes to Londoners and visitors at any time of day or night.”
Hannah and Mona work hard taking orders and delivering food to hungry punters 24 hours a day. Each of the girls works double shifts, 12-hour days, passing like ships in the night in order to earn as much money as possible while still going to auditions and working the occasional gig. They also live together, although it’s not exactly how they expected to welcome their 30’s in, sharing a one bed flat together, swapping a living room for a second bedroom.
This isn’t what they expected life to be life. Hannah moved to London from Wales to find fame as a musician while Mona who travelled across the world from Singapore expected to have a starring role as a dancer in the West End by now. Working in a 24-hour cafe was meant to be temporary; a job that paid their bills until they made it.
They have been working at Stella’s for so long now though that they have their own little rituals. Firstly they have their own dance and every time ‘Tutti Frutti’ comes on and they are working together they have to dance – it’s the rule. Secondly, they like to share their observations and thoughts on the customers that visit the cafe.
“… unhappy soya latte woman is finally getting a divorce,…”
In fact, it sounds like the ideal job if you enjoy people watching and concocting stories for each of them.
Daily life in the cafe also gives them time to reflect on their own lives, and they share quite a bit with us, the reader.
For Hannah, we learn more about her personal struggles with a difficult break-up; his deception and the longing to be loved. We also learn more about her own motivation towards a career in music and her doubts about her own abilities and whether she will ever succeed.
For Mona, her split family-life has left her with a void she hopes success and friends can fill for her. She wants a home where she feels comfortable, warm and wanted but she is concerned that will never happen. She thought she had found a place she could call home, sharing with her best friend in a city she loves but is her relationship with Hannah really that strong that it can survive anything?
It is during the quiet times in the cafe that both Hannah and Mona reflect on life and how things have changed over the years for both of them. We learn about how they first met, how their friendship developed, how the lives of their onetime closest friends – Poppy the socialiser, Bemi the loved up lesbian, Sophie the double bass player and Lily the artist – have moved on while theirs appear to have stood still in time.
Alongside these two main storylines, we learn about the lives of others that come into Stella’s. There is Dan, struggling with life since his mother passed away, Monique the new mother, Harry and Martha the newlyweds, and Joe and Haziq a couple exploring the difficulties of living life together as a gay couple from two different countries.
It is a novel that reminds you that everyone you pass or interact with on a daily basis, the unknown faces, have a life, concerns, worries, and hopes, that we will never know about. WE can speculate about their lives of course, but it reminds you that you should never judge because simply do not know what others are going through.
My Thoughts on The 24 Hour Cafe
When I realised that the entire story was set in a cafe, I did wonder how it would unfold and whether it would be able to capture my attention fully. Then I realised that the novel was really about just two people with an occasional diversion to someone else which lead me to worry about the pace of the novel and whether I would get bored quickly. However, I quickly realised that I enjoy reading about not only their lives but also their speculations on those that opened the door to the cafe.
Within the pages of The 24-Hour Cafe, Libby Page has also explored several hard-hitting topics that I did not expect. Mental illness is a major concern, and with the pressures of modern-day life, it seems to be getting worse, but this novel does a very good job touching on many of these. We read about the pressures of the performing Arts industry and how it can lead to eating disorders, anxiety and the feeling of never quite being good enough. Libby has also touched on other issues that affect a wider population of people – including post-natal depression and how to deal with the loss of a loved one.
What I initially believed would be quite a light-hearted read turned into a thought-provoking, emotional ride that caused me to reflect on my own life and on those closest to me. It made me realise that we all feel unable to cope at times with what life, unfortunately, throws at us but is how we handle those curve balls that makes us ultimately stronger.
Perhaps that was Libby Page’s aim? Hiding in plain sight is a deep, challenging novel that causes the reader to reflect on life without confrontation or judgment. It’s a narrative highlighting that when life gets you down, you are not alone.
What I thought would be a comfort, fun-loving light read, has turned into something much more stimulating and profound.
Have you read The 24-Hour Cafe? Perhaps you have read Libby Page’s first novel, The Lido?
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