“The Changing Room” by Belinda Cranston – book review

When you hit a certain age, you can count on two things:

  1. you will be nostalgic for your youth
  2. most stories you read will feel familiar in some way.

So it was a pleasant surprise to come across The Changing Room – it’s unlike any novel I’d read before and it transported me back to my early 20s.

The main character is Rachel, a 23-year-old travelling overseas armed with just her Rough Guide (it’s set in 1997) and a hope of finding a version of herself she can live with.

As the novel’s title suggests, a key theme is the idea of changing your circumstances and maybe even who you are – and Rachel is entranced with this notion. There’s a dreaminess about her as she keeps thinking back to a childhood cartoon about a man who has the luxury of stepping into a costume shop’s changing room and trying on different outfits and adventures.

Rachel yearns for adventures and identities of her own, but the reality of travel is often harsh – and uncertain. Reality seems to be another theme: it’s often hard for Rachel – and the reader – to be sure of what she’s actually experiencing or what she thinks she’s experiencing, lending this novel an ambiguous and surreal tone. There were times when I wondered if Rachel was actually having a mystical encounter, or just having an illusion to compensate for the often cruel and banal travel experiences she just endured.

What is realistic is Rachel’s perpetual self doubt and disappointment. As I read about her travels through London, Egypt and Israel, I was reminded of my own travels in the 90s armed also with a Rough Guide, my naiveté and a growing realisation that my own fantasies about travel were wildly incongruous with what I was experiencing.

(And talking of realism, if you’re ever thinking of joining a kibbutz in Israel, this novel might just change your mind.)

It’s a tight and well-written novel, and one that fleshes out the main character so well it’s impossible not to be moved. Although I’m still not entirely sure about what I read, what I do know is it’ll stick with me for a long time and gripped me to the end.

To me, that’s a mark of a good book.

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