Walk through the streets of any big city and you will quickly come to understand that while you are surrounded by an untold number of people, all surging past with steely and impatient intent, you are, in many important ways, very much alone.
None of those people know you or care to know you, and as these strangers rush past you, it’s impossible to conceive that you are connected to them in any meaningful way at all.
That is until you read the thoughtfully affecting delight that is The 24-Hour Café by Libby Page, a novel that makes a wholly convincing case for the fact that connection is possible, just not in the way you may have imagined.
Taking place over one day from midnight to midnight in Stella’s a 24/7 café situated just across from London’s Liverpool station, The 24-Hour Café primarily tells the story of two waitresses, Hannah and Mona, both aspirant creative types who have taken jobs in hospitality on their way to big, better and brighter things.
Both love working at the café with its rich and varied and sometimes chaotically noisy clientele, but neither wants it to be a long-term gig with Hannah eager to launch a storied career as a jazz guitarist and singer and Mona desperate to snare a job at a dance company.
Best friends and flatmates, Hannah and Mona are more sisters than friends, there for each other through thick and thin, each the other’s biggest cheerleader and both committed to making their dreams come true and celebrating the highs and lamenting the lows together along the way.
“‘I know it night sound silly,’ continues Mona. ‘But when I’m dancing I fee as though I’m doing what my body is meant to do. I’m more myself than I am at any other time. I sometimes feel like someone should watch me dance if they want to really get to know me. It’s like my body can describe me better than me talking ever can. It’s more eloquent, somehow. Does that sound mad?’
Hannah finds herself swallowing hard as Mona’s words hit her in the chest. Because they don’t sound mad at all – they make perfect sense.” (P. 63)
Their close relationship is the living, beating heart of The 24-Hour Café with the story largely told from their perspective on what turns out to be a highly eventful day for both of them.
Told with a mix of present day narrative and thought back-upon remembrances, the book also functions as a short story collection with a number of different people popping in and out, each of them given sufficient time to tell their stories with empathy and humanity, elevating them from mere customers to people whom you might not know in a big city but with whom you come into contact in ways you might not ever imagine.
It is in this mixed focus on tweo key protagonists and a host of supporting players that The 24-Hour Café really excels.
So beautifully and with compassion and understanding does Page tell their stories that people who might otherwise have simply been anonymous souls ordering pancakes, cakes and coffee at all times of the day and night, come alive with such vibrancy and heartfelt fulsomeness that you can’t help but fall in love with each and every one of them.
Page brings them of the page so vividly that you soon forget you are reading a book, with a distinct feeling that you are sitting in one of the booths watching this parade of people come and go, some connecting, some not, but all of them integral to the café and to the busy, bustling city in which it sits.
The reason why this one 24-hour period comes to prove so pivotal to Hannah and Mona must be left to the reading since any discussion of the whys and wherefores wanders too uncomfortably into spoiler territory, but suffice to say, both friends are faced with some major choices – will they continue to stay within the warmth and quirky, sometimes brutal, wonder of Stellas or will they head on out and carpe diem the hell of life and opportunity when it comes calling?
It’s a place we all come to any one point or another – do we go all out to pursue our dreams, giving them one last chance to find concrete expression in a world more predisposed to quashing than realising them, or do we accept that the hard grind has won and it’s time to go with what is on hand?
It’s not an easy situation to be in nor an easy one to resolve, and Page explores with rare thoughtfulness and care, what it is like being in this difficult place is like for both Hannah, who is nursing recent romantic heartache, and Mona, who might be on the cusp of something momentous, and how it will affect them on this one special day and thereafter.
With every chapter featuring either Hannah or Mona – they are working double shifts on this day so Hannah occupies midnight to noon while Mona takes the other half of the 24-hour block – and the people who happen to be there at the time including university student Dan who has a world of grief-stricken problems to contend with, Joe and Haziq who are desperately in love but caught in an impossible situation and Harry & Martha who have found true love late in life and are all the more grateful for that.
“The warmth of the café welcomes him [Dan] as he opens the door and steps back inside. It is much busier than when he left this morning (although the morning seems a long time ago), but he spots a table near the back and sits down, taking off his backpack and tucking it under the chair. He nods up at the stuffed bear, prepared this time for his staring eyes and outstretched claws.” (P. 353)
They are, without exception beautifully moving stories.
In no time at all, and with a narrative elegance that will delight and impress, Page takes you into the varied worlds of these people, underlining again and again how easy connection can be if you are open to it, and that laying your heart on the line isn’t really as scary as it night seem.
When it comes to Hannah and Mona, The 24-Hour Café is a glowing testimonial to the power of friendship to survive pretty much everything you throw at it, though not without some hurtful collateral damage from time to time, taking the time to let us get to know how they became friends, stayed friends and weathered the tumult of life can test even the resolve of best friends to stay there for each other.
There is so much about this wonderful book that rings true, from its encouragement to see those around you not as strangers but unknown people with whom you are connected simply by being alive and in the one crowded, amazing place, to its touching exploration of the minutiae of people’s lives which are rich in truth and emotional resonance, through to the beauty of real, deep and lasting friendship without which we are the poorer.
Stella’s may be a whimsically quirky place that becomes its own memorable character in The 24-Hour Café but ultimately it is the setting for stories big and small, a reminder that whenever we feel we are alone and disconnected from everyone around us, that connection is just a step or a burger order away, and that by taking a chance, we might find life can surprise and delight after all, especially when we are at our lowest point.