I’m always surprised there aren’t more novels written about office life. It is such a seething microcosm of contemporary culture, rife with tensions and politics and power play. At the same time, though, its interest is mostly superficial. When I left office life after lasting a mere year in it, I left it for academia and had to endure a certain amount of sneering about exchanging ‘real life’ for ivory towers. In my experience this was nonsense. In the university, academics worked extremely hard with passion and commitment because they were following the ideals of their hearts and minds. In my old office, grown-up schoolchildren were given pay packets and left mostly to get on with as little work as they could get away with. Of course this was what made office life interesting; the people in it were paid to be there all day, every day, and that made for a fair amount of time to fill in creative ways, especially if work didn’t much come into it. I should point out that my view is jaundiced because the company I worked for was less than inspiring; but having just finished, and loved, Lucy Kellaway’s novel In Office Hours, it strikes me that not so much has changed since I was on the nine to five. Given that Kellaway is apparently a journalist with a regular column in The Financial Times, she knows of what she speaks.
In Office Hours is the story of two fated affairs that take place in the London offices of Atlantic Energy, a global oil company. While economic meltdown occurs out in the wider world, emotional meltdown happens on the private level to Stella Bradberry, a mid-forties executive carrying the burden of female representation at top management level, and Bella Chambers, a young, single mother overlooked and underwhelmed in her PA role. Bella’s relationship is the more conventional of the two, as she falls for her fattish, balding married boss because he actually appreciates the work she does and sees special qualities in her. Stella, however, risks her career and her own marriage on a prickly graduate trainee, Rhys, who, after an initially rocky start, seems genuinely admiring of her abilities. There’s a lot of sharp satire of the position of women in the workplace, which seemed all too plausible to me. Secretaries are still regarded as a sub-human species, interchangeable, shunted about from place to place, their often impressive skills rarely valued by those in management. Whilst the women who do make it to the top are expected not only to do their job, but also to act as flag wavers for their gender, while their behaviour towards other female colleagues is placed under excessive scrutiny. Stella is a fascinating case study of a female workaholic who pushes herself precisely because she is scared of pressure and responsibility, and she is surrounded by men who simply cannot see her at all, who have no idea what she is thinking or feeling and who could not particularly care less. In this desert of emotional intelligence, it’s not surprising that a little spark of authentic sympathy can quickly turn into a forest fire.
I’m not giving anything away when I say that the affairs concerned follow the orthodox route for fiction. The novel opens a couple of years after both have ended, so it’s not like the reader doesn’t know where all this is going. And Kellaway buys into the ideology that affairs are punishments in themselves; the pleasure that Stella and Bella gain is far outweighed by the grief and stress of illicit relationships. But it really doesn’t matter that part of the plot is sketched out before it even begins – the stories of these two women make for utterly compelling reading. Kellaway is a clever writer and the trajectories of her two female protagonists intersect and echo one another at times, striking sparks of significance. She makes brilliant use of what must be the prime erotic tool of office work – the ability to be in constant communication via email, mobile phones and blackberries, and shows how these facilitate office romances as well as lead inexorably to their discovery. And I appreciated her depiction of an affair as akin to madness, the way it swallows its protagonists up in a maelstrom of damaging emotions, provoking them into behaving in ways they would never normally dream of doing. But all the while, Kellaway herself never judges and she never explains. She leaves her readers to be caught up in the turbulence and to make of it what they will.
So why do these otherwise sensible women embark on dangerous affairs? Various possibilities are hinted at that are due to the office environment itself, with boredom hovering always on the threshold, as well as sudden, fierce pressure to perform, and the power play and politics that can so easily leech out over their boundaries. But it’s also significant that none of the main characters has a fulfilling home life, with stale marriages, or lonely singledom waiting at the end of the office day. It may be that to know we are loved by partners or family or friends is not enough. May be we really need to feel love, to be properly engaged with the people who are fond of us, to give and receive genuine, caring sympathy and support, and that without this quality our lives are missing something essential. No, I haven’t quite stated that emphatically enough. It may be that the need to feel the blast furnace heat of love and admiration is so important that we will risk everything in its name, when we have been starved of it for too long. But that’s my explanation, not Kellaway’s, and if you feel like a really good, engrossing, accessible, sharply funny read, then you could always try this and come up with an explanation of your own.
ps – I used the old cover for my image as I prefer it so much to the paperback one, which depicts the back of a woman in high heels and looks horribly trashy. This isn’t a trashy chick-litty book! Why do publishers do this?