London may seem to defy narration – “too large, too ancient, too many layers”, as a character in Linda Grant’s new novel A Stranger City suggests – but the novel’s powerful portrait of the city proves the opposite.
It’s a panoramic, sometimes discursive account of contemporary London – a city of strangers – and while the shadow of Brexit and its accompanying pervasive anxiety – the city becoming stranger – hangs over the story, it manages to use the B word only once.
In fact the genesis of the novel, Grant says, dates back to 1992, when, as a journalist, she attended the burial of an unknown woman drowned in the Thames. “That story stayed with me all that time; there was something there.”
In 2016 she began writing an account of that bleak day in a wintry East London cemetery, and at the same time overheard an ugly scene between a young man and young woman on a train into Moorgate from Alexandra Palace. “I wrote that up too, and the novel came out of trying to connect those two things. It all flowed from that.”
In the novel, the young woman becomes Chrissie, an Irish nurse who coincidentally goes briefly missing at the same time as the unidentified woman ends her life jumping from London Bridge, and becomes something of a calm centre connecting a disparate cast list of modern Londoners.
It’s a novel of rich characterisation: Chrissie herself; documentary-maker Alan, from Northern Ireland; Francesa his wife, seemingly secure metropolitan whose Jewish Persian grandparents escaped the Iranian revolution; German cosmopolitans Caspar and Elfriede, “citizens of the world”; PR man Marco, real name Neil, of Lebanese background and victim of a racist acid attack; gay academic Rob, “walking wounded” after a terror incident; Romanian plumber Alex, and retired policeman Pete, native Londoner, brought up by the river and investigating the drowning as his last case before retirement.
There’s more than a nod to Charles Dickens, the subject of Grant’s MA studies. “If you are writing a London novel Dickens is always going to be lodged in your thinking,” she says. “And Dickens is one of the first modernists,” she adds, citing Bleak House, with its unreliable narration, different points of view, different tenses, capturing her sense of the disconnection of London, “operating on coincidence. A place where people criss-cross”. Like Jo, the Bleak House crossing sweeper, or Grant’s Chrissie, on a picaresque journey from flat share to flat share, always moving on.
A Stranger City is Grant’s eighth and the first, she feels, that can truly be described as a London novel – not the city of native Londoners, but the London of so many people, like Grant herself, originally a Liverpudlian, who come from somewhere else.
“I’d never written a whole novel about London,” she says. “I didn’t feel I knew enough, I didn’t have the right – unlike Liverpool, where I felt I had a deep understanding of what that city was about. But London has become an international city, a world city; the condition of London is being an immigrant. Most people are from somewhere else, which is how I experience London.”
Grant grew up in the small Merseyside Jewish community, her parents’ families from Kiev and Poland. She first came to London in 1976 after English Literature at York university, “dossing on a university friend’s sofa in Belsize Park for six months”, before continuing her studies in Canada.
Returning to London in the 1980s, she lived in her sister’s spare room in Lower Clapton before moving to Dulwich Road in Brixton, where she stayed for almost a decade until heading back north to Crouch End in 1994.
Grant’s fictional London is also that peripheral city of double-figured postcodes. A Stranger City is centred on the imagined enclave of Wall Park, below the North Circular, though readers familiar with Bowes Park, Myddleton Road and the New River will recognise the neighbourhood.
It’s a familiar setting, of understated gentrification, the older city juxtaposed with its newer inhabitants, and even, in a passage Grant playfully describes as “magical realism-ish”, the site of a portal, via paying a penny toll at a tunnel by the river, into the “Island” a “geographical anomaly”, a cut-off enclave of Victorian terraces and insular, intolerant inhabitants, even a retired circus elephant in a garage, where Francesca experiences a hallucinatory vision of a concentration camp
on the adjoining marshes.
It is of course, or was, a real place, off Evering Road in Stoke Newington, finally demolished in 1970, though for Francesca it has the quality of a dream. “Make what you like of where you’ve been,” Francesca is told by her guide Vic, another native Londoner, and the vision fuels what becomes a prevailing anxiety as the story moves into an imagined near future, of deportee trains transporting illegal immigrants to prison ships on the Thames, the country “being emptied of its unwanted population”.
“What worried me most after the referendum was the xenophobia, and everyone affected, in quite personal ways,” says Grant. “I wanted to write about that, trying to imagine a worst-case scenario which would operate in the realms of the possible.
“And the idea of home as well. Where do we belong? Is this actually my home? Look at the Windrush generation; you see how people can lose their idea of where they belong overnight, It’s become possible to imagine all kinds of things happening.”
Grant is pondering a “speculative future” about what could be though – “it’s not a prediction” – and the novel remains rooted in feeling and experience not politics – a celebration of London’s openness and possibilities, it’s “mouth wide open to the sea”, as much as it strikes a warning note about where we are now.
It’s people like her character Pete, the policeman, says Grant, who “understand, who have that insight into modern London”. And as he says, pondering the “good city” on an elegiac boat trip down the Thames, “you couldn’t have London without foreigners…and “if you took a DNA test you found you were all sorts”.