The best novels about modern London
If you really want to understand London, and you can’t go to live there, read a story about it. Forget Charles Dickens though – his might be the most famous novels about the city, indeed they’re still great (and often really funny) books, but a man who died in 1870 can’t tell you much about contemporary London…
The London of today is a vibrant city with a complex texture. It’s a blend of old stone and glass towers, warm ale and exotic flavours, the constant churning progress of global culture and commerce. It can be easy to forget it’s all just a product of human activity, people of every race from every place living out their lives together, interacting in an infinity of ways, playing their various parts in the story of the city.
Here is my selection of a few of the best novels about modern London, which reveal that rich texture in all its glory:
Saturday – Ian McEwan, 2005
A successful neurosurgeon is living a comfortable life in Bloomsbury, a well-to-do part of the city, when a car crash suddenly brings him into contact with a psychotic, violent man. The story is set against the backdrop of two big contemporary issues: the war in Iraq and concerns about terrorism in the UK. It unfolds over the course of one day – Saturday, 15 February, 2003 – when a (non-fictional) anti-war protest took place in London.
McEwan manages an impressive feat of writing: painting a vivid picture of contemporary society at a large-scale, then zooming down to the microscopic detail of what happens in a person’s brain, and showing the impact both can have on one fragile life in this interconnected world.
A Week in December – Sebastian Faulks, 2010
Set during the week before Christmas in 2007, this novel carries with it the chilly air and early evening darkness that characterise London in winter. It follows seven characters, each of whom reveals an aspect to modern London life:
A hedge-fund manager – finance is London’s biggest industry
His son, who is always smoking weed and watching reality TV – …which a lot of people do
A young lawyer – four of the world’s top six law firms are headquartered in London
A professional footballer from Poland – football has always been a big aspect of British culture, although two-thirds of the players in the Premier League today are not British
A student who is dabbling in Islamic extremism – the threat from Islamic extremism and terrorism is a regular feature on UK news
A Tube driver – for over 150 years, the London Underground has knitted the city together, just as it knits together the lives of the characters in this novel…
Capital – John Lanchester, 2013
Capital follows the diverse residents of a normal London street, Pepys Road, named after the city’s most famous historical biographer, Samuel Pepys (1633-1703). Lanchester shows that a novel can be an equally accurate portrayal of the state of a nation, as he weaves a mystery plot involving a rich banker and his shopaholic wife, an ‘anonymous’ street artist and his dying grandmother, the Pakistani family who run the local shop (whose son is wrongfully arrested on terrorism charges) and a young football prodigy from Senegal. Noticing any common themes?
While the mystery keeps the story moving, the real interest of this novel lies in the wildly different ways of life and values that are seen to coexist in the same environment. Meanwhile, a real event unfolds that affects all these lives: the financial crisis of 2008.
London Fields – Martin Amis, 1989
It’s both impossible and unnecessary to summarise the plot of this book. Just know that it centers around the Black Cross, a shabby local pub in Notting Hill. As in many parts of London, the rich and the poor, the villains and the vulnerable, the sexy women and ugly men, all live in close proximity, embroiled in their daily power struggle. And when they end up in the same pub, things start to happen…
Martin Amis is a literary genius and a master satirist. London Fields is a novel as dense as the city it depicts, but if you make it out of the other side you find your experience of normal life irreversibly enhanced. And you’ll be laughing.
London Fields is currently being made into a film.
Armadillo – William Boyd, 1998
Lorimer Black is a loss adjuster working for a London insurance company. But don’t let that put you off; he is also from a family of Transnistrian gypsies, listens to African music, experiments with lucid dreaming, quotes often from Gérard de Nerval, and collects ancient Roman battle helmets. So he’s a fairly interesting character. The story opens when he attends a routine business appointment to find the man he was supposed to meet has hanged himself.
Armadillo is a really engaging portrait of an apparently successful young man with all of life’s opportunities before him, yet who ultimately feels lost and is struggling to find his place in the world. It’s easy to feel that way in London, when the city is always much bigger than you. Like all of these novels, it also reveals the tension that exists between (and within) social classes throughout this vast, mixed-up metropolis.