For some novels, location is immaterial: plot or characterisation is the thing. Others are much more firmly rooted in their setting, a sense of place evoked through vivid word pictures or the mention of well known landmarks. When it comes to cities, I have a number of favourite backdrops – regular readers are probably all too well aware of my partiality for Berlin and New York. I’ve already posted one of these for New York and no doubt Berlin will follow but I thought, given how little I’ve visited it this year, I’d take a literary trip to London, a city I love. Here, then, are five novels in which London almost feels like a character in itself – three with links to reviews on this blog.
I’ll begin with Linda Grant’s A Stranger City which paints a picture of a post-referendum London through the stories of a set of disparate characters brought together by their connection with a woman whose body is pulled from the Thames and who remains unclaimed and unidentified for four years. Each character’s story is subtly woven through the others’ into a bright tapestry, some of it ragged and frayed, of a city Grant clearly loves but about which she’s deeply concerned. Her novel reveals a London which is always in flux, shaping and reshaping itself to fit the constant flow of people drawn to it. I loved it – a novel with something to say which draws you in and keeps you rapt to its end.
If Grant’s novel shows her readers a London faced with the prospect of a crisis in the form of Brexit, John Lanchester’s Capital depicts it in the grips of another: the 2008 financial crash. The residents of Pepys Road – a banker and his spendthrift wife, an elderly woman dying of a brain tumour, the Pakistani family who run the local shop, a young football star from Senegal and his minder – all receive anonymous postcards with a simple message: We Want What You Have. No one has a clue who they’re from or what they mean but speculation is rife. Meanwhile, the crash brings about irrevocable changes in Pepys Road some of whose residents begin to think differently about what’s important in their lives. Lanchester’s novel is a doorstopper which bowls along nicely, capturing the city at a particular point in its history as it does so.
A very different London is vividly evoked in all its grimy, resplendent glory in Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s debut, The Tyranny of Lost Things. During the heatwave of 2011, a young woman takes up a flatshare in a house where, unbeknownst to her new flatmates, she lived as a child when it was home to a commune. One panic attack too many has decided her to return to the house where she knows something traumatic happened twenty years ago. Cosslett structures her novel around a series of objects interspersing them with snapshots from her character’s commune childhood giving the narrative a taut thread of suspense. A thoroughly enjoyable piece of fiction which made me grateful for my own old-fashioned, conventional upbringing.
Cosslett’s novel doesn’t shy away from the grubbier aspects of London but if you want something even seamier Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock takes you from the docks of Deptford and into the coffee shops, parlours and bordellos of the eighteenth-century city. It begins in 1785 with a Deptford merchant taking delivery of a wizened figure said to be a mermaid. Across town, a courtesan sits pondering what to do now her patron has died. Jonah Hancock becomes obsessed with Angelica Neal, throwing caution to the winds in his compulsion to possess this woman who sets him the seemingly impossible task of finding her another mermaid. Gowar’s novel has more than a touch of the morality tale about it, exploring the position of women in eighteenth-century society all wrapped up in a good old-fashioned bit of storytelling replete with period detail. As in the best morality tales, there’s a great deal of sly wit running through the narrative. Who can resist a novel with the line: Mr Trevithick steps aside to draw her attention to the flagellation machine which sits in the corner awaiting its weekly polish.
Peter Ackroyd has spent much of his life writing about London with which he is clearly enamoured. I remember reading his novel, Hawksmoor, shortly after it was published in 1985 when I was working there and thinking how well Ackroyd evoked the city. In the early eighteenth-century, Sir Christopher Wren’s assistant, Nicholas Dyer, is engaged in nefarious practices at odds with his master’s Christian beliefs. Two hundred and fifty years later Nicholas Hawksmoor is investigating a series of gruesome murders on the site of Wren’s churches. I remember Ackroyd’s novel as being wonderfully atmospheric – gripping, chilling and evocative, giving my walk to work in the City from the Tube quite a frisson.
Perhaps I should have included a Dickens or two, probably the most quintessential London novelist for many but he’s not my favourite writer although I did toy with the idea of Bleak House. Maybe next time… What about you – any favourite London novels to recommend?
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