Travel hasn’t always been an interest of mine. Actually, up until a couple of years ago it wasn’t on my agenda at all. I recall being eighteen years old (ten years ago!), between A Levels and University, and thinking that anybody who took a gap year was just a little bit strange. My love of books started way before any interest in travel, and so there was no way that eighteen year old me was going to travel instead of heading to University to read for three years. Things have of course changed a little for me now, but my love affair with all things literary is still going strong. I’m one of those annoying fans of literary fiction who doesn’t really care about plot so much, and favours a focus on character and place, and one of the places that I enjoy reading about most of all, is my hometown of London. London is a city that is no stranger to the pages of literary fiction, and every time I pick up a novel set in London, it makes me realise just why I think it is the most special place in the world.
Here are five of my favourite London novels, which you should you read, and then read again.
Martin Amis – London Fields
Amis gets a lot of flack, and I can understand why as he is certainly not the most consistent of contemporary novelists. But when Amis is at the top of his game, I don’t think there is a British writer who is better a constructing a sentence. When you read an Amis novel, every single word counts for something. For me, economy is one of the most important aspects of prose; I just cannot be dealing flowery language choices that don’t count for anything. If a sentence isn’t telling you something about a character or moving on the plot then it isn’t doing its job. Amis gets this, and the punch that he packs in London Fields is second to none. Martin Amis is incredibly skilled at creating nasty characters, and this book is full of some particularly nasty stuff, including a not always favourable portrayal of the city of London, but if the idea of a metafictional murder story in a grimy city takes your fancy, then I implore you to read this exceptional novel.
John Lanchester – Capital
‘Capital’ is a city novel through and through. At its heart, this is a story about the way London can make you and the way London can break you. It’s about the way that in some ways this city is incredibly successful at bringing different groups of people together, but it’s also about the divisions of the city. Class obsessed as us Brits are, the fundamental difference in this novel is between rich and poor, between asylum seekers trying to find protection in the UK and city workers who work 18 hour days to maintain their extravagant lifestyles. The characters are incredibly well drawn and the London of ‘Capital’ feels like a London that I really know. Read it!
Will Self – The Book of Dave
Another of my favourite writers, Will Self actually shares a lot in common with Martin Amis as a novelist – tight prose and grim characters. Self’s fiction tends to lean a little more on the absurd side, but teams a surreal quality with gritty realism. Real life can after all be pretty bloody weird. In ‘The Book of Dave’, a London cab driver writes a book to his son as an offering of Fatherly advice. That book gets buried in London and is discovered hundreds of years later – and starts a religion! This book feels so full of big ideas – it reminds me of why I love novels so much.
Charles Dickens – Oliver Twist
Charles Dickens has to be the ultimate London novelist. More than this, he was always a champion of the working classes in London, and is the novelist who most famously put pen to paper out of a desire to see justice for working class people. Throughout his novels, you will find grotesque caricatures of the English upper classes (except they are not really caricatures) and smart and craft chancers such as the Artful Dodger of Oliver Twist. Dickens was also a great fan of the country, but nowhere inspired him quite as much as London, and his descriptions of London fog have become iconic – “Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city.”
Ian McEwan – Saturday
Ian McEwan is a hit and miss novelist for me. His recent interest in popular science bores me to tears, and I wish he would inject some of the Freudian excitement found in his earlier work into his more recent novels. Still, I really enjoyed ‘Saturday’, but I am not sure why. This is a book about the whinges of middle class people, which would usually be such a turn off for me. I think I love it so much because the characters, the place (London, of course), and the time (2003, when the city staged a huge public protest against the invasion of Iraq) are impeccably drawn. And McEwan’s prose is pretty much flawless – it has such transparency that reading one of his novels is like looking through a window.
Which are your favourite London novels?