Robert Sutton is sliding towards old age and is ready to sell the dry-cleaning business which has long been his livelihood. He teaches an eager young family man named Akeel how to manage the shop. More important than the cleaning, Akeel must learn how to deal with the colourful characters who come into the establishment. Alongside this narrative are the stories of several other characters: Dean, a drug-dealer with a strong sense of family; Stefan, a [...] and attractive personal trainer who has a problem with commitment; Marylin, a kind-hearted health worker; Helen, a nanny having an affair; and a gregarious poet/seer who rides the local buses. Although The Room of Lost Things is filled with a number of fascinating characters, no character is quite as intriguing or vividly described as the city of London itself. In particular, Duffy focuses on the slightly dilapidated area of Loughborough Junction which often has a bad reputation as a rough area. But, as the author describes, there are pockets of a strong community to be found here and an interesting mixture of cultures from all over the world.
Stored in a room above the dry-cleaning shop are a multitude of carefully labelled boxes containing unclaimed personal items that were left in the clothes customers brought in. These items hint at mysteries and personal stories that number in the hundreds, but also include clues about the past of Robert himself and the reasons why he is alienated from his family. Duffy's musing on these bits of collected belongings speak powerfully about the importance of objects in our lives and how items which were once meaningful can gradually be forgotten - just as our relationships with loved ones who are physically lost to us fade. The descriptions of Robert's humble, solitary existence make a particularly powerful portrait of male solitude. Robert embodies a rather old-fashioned view that men must do what needs to be done while keeping their emotions carefully guarded. Duffy manages to skilfully convey this with descriptions of the character's actions and when he does finally allow himself to open up about his feelings it is utterly heartbreaking.
Equally moving is the story of a homophobic attack made on Stefan during the novel. The incident prompts this independent character to gradually allow a greater degree of intimacy with a man he had carefully bracketed as a casual sexual partner up until this point. The assault brings up other issues such as problematic racial and religious divisions which are threaded throughout the other tales in this novel. For such a varied group of people to live in such a small area, there are often clashes, disagreements, miscommunications and occasional revelatory glimpses of understanding. Duffy conveys a strong sense of spiritual richness in a community that simmers with diverse individuals.