This is my second post featuring novels I’ve enjoyed set in London, a city I’ve visited almost every year of my adult life but still find places I’ve not seen before to delight me as I discovered on my first post-lockdown holiday. It’s a city of many different faces some of which you’ll find in my choices. Below are five novels firmly anchored in the capital, some at different and sometimes troubled times in its life, all with links to reviews on this blog.
Lissa Evans’ V for Victory is set in the last days of the Second World War against a backdrop of a London heavily scarred with bombsites. It catches up with Vee and Noel, names familiar to readers of Old Baggage, neither of whom are quite who they appear to be. Vee is now running a guest house open to lodgers willing to tutor the precocious Noel who refuses to go to school. To their guests they’re aunt and nephew but Vee is Noel’s guardian, met in compromising circumstances. The novel draws to a close on VE Day, the capital joyfully partying on its streets, by which time Vee will have made a surprising ally and Noel will have understood a great deal about his origins. Evans’ hugely entertaining novel is steeped in wartime London atmosphere.
Fast forward to 1962 and the glossy vibrant Swinging Sixties – all Carnaby Street, mini-skirts, coffee bars and rock n’ roll, or at least that’s what nostalgic TV documentaries would have us believe. Jo Bloom’s Ridley Road flips that coin to reveal something nasty – racism and fascism alive and kicking almost two decades after the war ended. Inspired by a conversation heard between her father and an old political activist friend, Bloom’s novel follows twenty-year-old Vivien who leaves Manchester, heading south in search of the man she knows as Jack Fox, a writer who spent time closeted with her father just before he died. What follows is an exploration of a fascinating slice of British history all wrapped up in a thriller and a love story. It’s a chilling read at times which sounds a warning bell, loud and clear for our own times.
Miranda Emmerson’s A Little London Scandal is also set in the ‘60s, on the eve of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales. When a body is found at the back of a gentleman’s club an investigation is launched by a CID keen for a conviction and not too fussy about evidence. Anna Treadway resumes her role as amateur sleuth when a young man she knows finds himself in the frame, teaming up with DS Hayes in a quest for truth which takes them through all echelons of London’s society, from the establishment to the homeless. One of the things I most enjoyed about this atmospheric novel was its vivid sense of place which took me to a part of London I know well, long before gentrification.
Sonia Zinovieff’s Putney offers glimpses of ‘70s bohemian London as it explores the fallout of childhood abuse through Ralph who’s aroused by Daphne’s boyish beauty when she’s nine and he’s twenty-seven. Daphne is the child of parents caught up in their own affairs, looking anywhere but at what’s happening under their noses. Forty years later, Ralph is oblivious to Daphne’s chaotic, rackety life while she works on a collage commemorating her time with him in a flat a stone’s throw away from her childhood home. This subject could so easily have been mishandled but Zinovieff explores it with consummate skill in a thoroughly accomplished novel.
A much more positive view of human nature can be found in Gemma Reeves’ Victoria Park, an evocative portrait of a London neighbourhood which follows the intersecting lives of its inhabitants over a year that’s mundane for some, dramatic for others. Like any neighbourhood, Victoria Park is not without its troubles – a young man, terribly injured by an acid attack, lies in a coma – nor has it escaped the relentless rise of property prices. As the year wears on, an affair will be ended, a body will be found, a wedding will be celebrated, a baby conceived and an ageing resident will continue to lose her grip on the present. Beautifully executed, Reeves’ absorbing enjoyable novel is imbued with gentle humour, compassion and affection.
Any novels set in London you’d like to share?