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Books: A room with a view

In a garret over a synagogue lurk the ghosts of a vanished way of life. Dina Rabinovitch enters a strange time-capsule that holds the secrets of the old East End and its changing peoples
Rodinsky's Room

by Rachel Lichtenstein with Iain Sinclair

Granta, pounds 20, 338pp

Liquid City

by Marc Atkins and Iain Sinclair

Reaktion Books, pounds 14.95, 224pp

In 1969 a girl was born, and a man died. Sometimes, from such stuff a story is spun. That has happened with , a resonating tale of identities lost and found. The girl is Rachel Gray, daughter of the jeweller from whom Liam Gallagher chose Patsy Kensit's engagement ring. When she turned 19, she changed her surname, laying claim to that of her father's parents, so that she is now called Rachel Lichtenstein.

The man was named David Rodinsky. He lived most of his days closeted with his mother and sister in a rented garret above a synagogue in the East End of London. They came, like many of the immigrant Jewish population, fleeing Poland, Russia and then Germany. After his mother died, Rodinsky's room nurtured him. He left the room quite suddenly, and when it was discovered in the 1980s it was as if it had been frozen in time, all his belongings in place but deep in dust.

The room was piled high with books and notebooks in esoteric languages. Rodinsky's jacket was still hanging on the late-Victorian wardrobe, his wallet in the pocket. The story of the vanished man, who he was, what he did, turned into urban myth, and became fodder for the writers, performance artists and architects who were just beginning to colonise the area.

Someone made the connection with the old Jewish story of the Golem, first of the Superhero adventures - the mythical creature reputed to live in the attic of the Altneu synagogue in Prague, who would come to life when summoned by the Rabbi to save the local Jews from persecution.

The novelist Iain Sinclair was there, tramping the East End and writing it all down. Sinclair and Rachel Lichtenstein have collaborated to produce , taking alternate chapters, hers written in transparent English, easy as a letter home; his language opaque like stained glass.

So the book has many aspects, stories refracting off all surfaces. There is the tale of Rachel stumbling on Rodinsky's room, and setting off to find out more about the recluse. At the same time she researches her own past and her grandparents' time in the East End, and thereby makes decisions about her own future. One is taken into Rodinsky's life but, watching the gentle detective, one is drawn too into Lichtenstein's life. At the close, the reader sits back - like Rachel's mother, possibly - to say: I did not know it would end that way.

Then there is Sinclair's tale, which is of the city streets, and the stories they surrender of the people they have fashioned - the golems made from city clay. Tony Blair, he relates, honed his political skills in the emerging trendy quarter; Harold Pinter's dialogue came from here.

He talks of the double disappearance - that of Rodinsky from his room, and the old East End, of a population of immigrants in tenement housing, now replaced by City money, good art and neo-Georgians. Sinclair betrays himself as one of the colonisers, though. Not Jewish, he gets his vernacular idiom slightly wrong when he uses Hebrew words - rather like Prince Charles trying to use the term chutzpah.

And there is the tale of the collaboration. All the time is watching, dryly, the effect on Lichtenstein. She is obsessed, he says, with finding out about Rodinsky, but also she is a true keeper - and a recurring theme is how many tried to lay claim to this story of the man and his garret - because she respects what she finds.

There is much that is sad and shocking in the unfolding story, like the scene of Lichtenstein walking into a rave taking place in a diused synagogue, only to find performance artists tearing pages out of the synagogue's books. To the dismay of her friends, Lichtenstein - the fellow-artist - bodily stops the sacrilege.

Sinclair is cross-fertilising his work a lot. His version of Rodinsky shows up elsewhere in his books: his novel Downriver and, also just published, Liquid City. In this collaboration, Sinclair has written the text to accompany photographs of London by Marc Atkins.

These photographs, which include some taken of David Rodinsky's lodgings, are mentioned in the Lichtenstein/Sinclair book, and the tale of Rachel's search is also told, in passing, in the text of Liquid City. It is as if Iain Sinclair, in his writing, is walking down roads, and bumping into the same people - turning the writing process into a simulation of the old neighbourhood.

By the end of , you find out what happened to David Rodinsky, but both Sinclair and Lichtenstein leave you with the sense that the more that is uncovered, the more things disappear. When the room was sealed, it lived on. Opened up, exposed and explored, it is now properly catalogued - but it is no longer there.