I’ve been thinking a great deal about London. In less than a week I will board a plane that will take me there for the start of a new life. Even in fiction, the city follows me. In the last few months I have read three books where London has been the setting. You can even argue that the capital sometimes functions as a character in these books, because it has a temperament and a voice.
London gets under your skin. No wonder so many authors choose to make it the setting of their books. But a writer who chooses a recognizable place for the setting of their novel also takes huge risks. The reader might not judge the depiction believable. Or it can add a layer of self-consciousness. Instead of losing yourself in a book, you can find yourself asking too often, ‘Does this ring true?’ It’s hard to write about something as large and complex as London without reducing it to a stereotype or a cliche.
I sort of found this in the latest book I read, My Special Relationship, by Douglas Kennedy. It’s probably the kind of book you would pick up at an airport and read on the plane, which means I’ve read it a couple of weeks too early.
The story centers around an American journalist living in Cairo, who finds herself moving to London after falling in love with a British colleague. She gets pregnant and discovers that her new husband is a cheat and a cad; he abandons her after a serious bout of postpartum depression and tries to take their child away from her, claiming that she is an unfit mother. This is hardly uplifting stuff. While I breezed through the briskly paced novel, I found myself getting stuck on the bits where London and the English get mentioned.
Here’s one sentence that popped out at me: ‘The great difference between Yanks and Brits was that Americans believed that life was serious but not hopeless … whereas the English believed that life was hopeless but not serious.’ I laughed at this and then wondered how true it was. Ultimately, I decided there was a grain of truth in there and the comment seemed well observed.
London appears in the story in all its usual ordinariness: the angry White Van Man; the dreary weather; the Pakistani shop owner who is permanently pissed off; the NHS; the obsession with property; the obsession with class; the excessive prices; the snootiness; the obsequious regard people have for traditions; the neurotic middle class. I recognized all of these and yet couldn’t help but feel that there was something a little too obvious about it all. I think the word I’m looking for is contrived.
I felt equally disappointed when I read Sebastian Faulks’ A Week in December. London featured prominently in this book, but it also felt a bit like it was trying too hard. All the usual suspects of modern Britain were there: an arrogant, workaholic banker who believed in nothing but making money; a professional football player with a beautiful Eastern European girlfriend; a disillusioned youth who smokes too much pot; a would-be terrorist; a newly rich Asian family; an American woman who drinks too much; a Tube driver; and a disgruntled book reviewer.
I have loved much of Faulks’ previous novels, especially Birdsong and Engleby, but this one seemed a little off. I couldn’t care about the characters, and I wanted to skip the pages which featured the banker. As well researched as I think the novel was, I did not get sucked in.
I’d be interested to read John Lanchester’s new novel about London on the brink, Capital. The plot focuses on a single street and how what happens there mirrors larger tensions in the city in the modern age. In an interview in Newsweek, Lanchester says, ‘The thing you can’t do in fiction is unlikeliness. In a novel it has to feel true. London’s full of things that don’t feel true but just happen to be true.’
I agree with this comment and maybe that’s why it’s so hard to capture the city in fiction without tipping into the hackneyed. So much of what happens in London doesn’t feel like it could be true, but it is. As the old saying goes, ‘Truth is stranger than fiction.’ London eludes something which tries too hard to pin it down.
Here are some books I’ve read which are set in London. Can you add to my list? I’d love to read other people’s suggestions, particularly if you liked what you read.
- A Week in December
- 84 Charing Cross Road
- One Day
- My Special Relationship
- The Night Watch
- Tipping the Velvet
- Brick Lane
- Nineteen Eighty-Four
- White Teeth
- High Fidelity
- A Little Princess
- A Christmas Carol
- Great Expectations
- Laura Blundy
- Her Fearful Symmetry
- Mrs Pettigrew Lives For a Day
- The Crimson Petal and the White