Reading David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue had me fall back in love with our capital city again, so I’m going to focus on London for Part 3 of Read Across the UK.
A housing estate somewhere in London
Hello Mum is a short story from Booker prize-winning author Bernadine Evaristo and was the first work I read by Evaristo. A real gut-punch, written in the form of a letter from a 14 year old boy to his Mum. In actuality, it’s a series of conversational monologues from a boy to his mother explaining how it was he died outside a fish & chip shop at this tender age. The line that caught me was “I wanted you to know I hadn’t been mixed up in badness for a long time – just for twenty-five minutes of my fourteen years of life.” This is a quick and emotional read about London estate life and gang culture, and well worth everyone’s time at under 100 pages.
Mr Loverman is my second offering from Bernadine Evaristo on this list, but both these two books are marvellous and so London that I couldn’t not include them. Barry is an Antiguan immigrant living in Hackney with his highly religious wife Carmel. Barry is quite the dandy, in the way that only Caribbean men can be, and we get to see life in Hackney through his eyes and that of the love of his life – his best friend Morris. Barry brings the colour of Antigua to grey London town with his sharp tailored suits and natty hats. He is a traditional old fashioned Caribbean man with all the stereotypical bits, both good and bad, but still a character to adore. If you walk down Ridley Road today, you’ll see it’s still chock full of characters who’d give Barry a run for his money.
Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows from Balli Kaur Jaswal nicely combines a murder mystery with the lives of widows in the West London area of Southall. The widows are all illiterate, but oh my can they tell stories. This tale provides us a glimpse into the unenlightened side of a Sikh community. Famously one which revolves around temple and service, it is nevertheless still extremely patriarchal. The suffocating nature of life in some of our capital city’s ethnic communities is what comes through most strongly here.
Crystal Palace, SE19
Ordinary People from Diana Evans was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2019 – yet what I enjoyed most when reading it related to the area in which it is based. “They lived near the park, where the transmitting tower loomed up towards the heavens like a lesser Eiffel, stern and metallic by day, red and lit up by night, overlooking the surrounding London boroughs and the home counties beyond, and harbouring in the green land at its feet the remains of the former glass kingdom” Crystal Palace, where the underground doesn’t go and you have to catch a train, is almost suburbia, not not quite. It’s more ethnic and interesting than proper suburbia “…. they had moved to the south for its creative energy and the charisma of its poverty” as befits being the chosen home of one of the central couples whose roots are in Jamaica and Nigeria. In truth, this book is a relatively ordinary story of relationships struggling after becoming parents, but the bits about Crystal Palace shine.
Her Fearful Symmetry from Audrey Niffenegger is yet another book where I found the location to be the winner. A ghost story where London’s Highgate Cemetery plays such a prominent part that it’s almost a character in itself. Female twins, a neighbour with OCD, and the lover of the dead woman (one half of another set of female twins), himself a tour guide at the Cemetery, are the other characters. This story is full of the type of gothic creepiness you’d not expect to find in a contemporary novel – and so is much like the iconic cemetery. Immediately I finished this, I added Highgate Cemetery to my wish list for a visit with my camera.
Although none of the last three were highly rated by me, they were all enjoyable reads with a real sense of place.
For my final two, I’m going back to London in Tudor times…
City of London
Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light – the famous Thomas Cromwell trilogy from Hilary Mantel gave us all a view not only of the machinations of Henry VIII’s court, but also of London at the time. Although the novels roamed far and wide across the country, both the court and Cromwell himself were largely based in London. Mantel’s descriptions brought much of the city to life for me, and I found myself absolutely fascinated by – in particular – Cromwell’s house at Austin Friars. I surely don’t need to add more about this marvellous trilogy, suffice it to say they’re well worth a read and that no-one should be put off by the first two being Booker Prize winners.
Inns of Temple
The Matthew Shardlake novels – Dissoluton, Dark Fire, Sovereign, Revelation, Heartstone and Lamentation from the pen of C J Sansom are also primarily set in London, in the area around Chancery Lane. They are all fine examples of historical mysteries at the time of Henry VIII and Sansom’s provides wonderful descriptive passages of London, the Thames, the palaces, as well as the seedier parts of town. Each book also comes with a detailed map to enable you to both get your bearings and compare the then with the now. The central character, Matthew Sharkdale, works first for Thomas Cromwell, then Thomas Cranmer, Queen Catherine Parr and finally the Princess Elizabeth. The central characters of Sansom’s novels are well drawn and and hugely likeable, and the tales themselves move along at a cracking pace. These are eminently readable novels and I commend them to you – not just for their sense of time and place.
There were so many candidates for this section and it was an almost impossible task for me to whittle it down to these few. What would you add to a list of “must reads” based in London?
© Debra Carey, 2022