Friday, 14 May 2010

"In Office Hours", Lucy Kellaway

Through ten odd years of my current working incarnation, when most of the time I'm supposed to be responsible adult doing grown up things, Lucy Kellaway, through her FT column, has done her bit to keep me sane and sensible.

She came into her own when the subversive in me delighted in goading my then training and development manager with her challenge for companies to concede that the sole reason to go open plan was to squeeze more desks in, one of many points in her writing on business nonsense that was all too applicable to modern working life.

It's impossible too to separate Lucy Kellaway from her wonderfully ridiculous yet true-to-life creation, Martin Lukes, who consistently succeeds in removing the cork from the excesses of C-Suite absurdity that most of us are painfully aware of.

For someone used to Kellaway's general no-nonsense and deeply humorous approach, "In Office Hours" will feel arrestingly different. Telling the story of two corporate women who embark on self destructive affairs within the company they work for, this bears scant relation to the levity that otherwise characterises Kellaway's writing.

Make no mistake however, this doesn't mean that this isn't a good book; it is. In fact, it teeters on the brink of brilliance. It's well observed, feels real, and it is impossible not to be moved by the raw tearing emotion felt by the characters. The fact that the relationships that lie at the heart of the book are doomed is clear from the start, just like any dispassionate observer to an illicit liaison can see the folly of the participants, but as in reality, there is a grim compulsion to seeing the car wreck unfold in front of us.

"In Office Hours" is not a happy book. There is a conspicuous absence of joie de vivre, with the initial exuberence Stella and Bella feel when corresponding with their ... what's the right word, men? boyfriends?  counterparts? ... rapidly subsumed by the feeling of being trapped by an illicit relationship, which comes across as being no fun whatsoever. Doomed love does nonetheless make for affecting reading, in this way Kellaway is following in the steps of Faulks' "On Green Dolphin Street" or Hollinghurst's "The Line of Beauty" in writing something that I suspect will stay with you for a while.

An old friend of mine used to say of office romances that one should never piss on one's own doorstep. He's now happily married to a woman he met at work. Indeed Lucy Kellaway herself makes no bones about the fact that she met her husband at work. This however doesn't alter the core message of "In Office Hours", that our colleagues are people that understand us, and that we have a huge amount in common with, but ultimately crossing the line from friendship to intimacy is a step that isn't likely to make us happy in the long term.

"In Office Hours" is a very good, possibly brilliant, book. Having finished it I'm pretty sure I won't read it again; one read through is enough. It will make me read Lucy's column in Monday morning's FT with an awful lot more respect though. I always knew she was good, reading this I now know she's really good.


  1. I didn't know any of this about Lucy Kellaway. I read her debut years ago when I was in hospital and my then-boss visited and gave me a copy. I quite liked it (was it called Sweet Desserts and had recipes in? or have I totally misremembered?). I have not thought of the author since but it seems from your review as if I'd enjoy this - not least because I have worked in an office for far too long.

  2. Not sure if I'm familiar with "Sweet Desserts" but may well look for it. "In Office Hours" is good, but if you're looking for real puncturing of the absurdity of office life her "Who Moved My Blackberry" is probably a good one to look out for. Failing that, if you've got an FT subscription (or if you can plumb the likes of LexisNexis) do a search for "Martin Lukes" and you'll find heaven alone knows how many hours of amusement.