Are you tired of all those ‘Things to do in your twenties’ articles yelling at you to travel the world? I am. While travelling the world is a really, really good idea, sometimes life throws a stones in your path which disallow you from spending your money on travels – or perhaps you’re not earning enough to save up for a long round-the-world trip. It’s alright – if you can’t spend thousands on travelling just yet, there is still hope: books. Yep, as always, books come to the rescue. It may not be quite the same as jetting off and seeing the sights, but with a little imagination, curling up in your favourite chair and picking up a book set in the destination of your dreams can scratch the wanderlust itch… at least until you can finally gather together the money to make it a reality.
To start off this series, let’s look at some brilliant books set in London. From classic to contemporary, these books offer up plenty of windows through which to gaze at the city of dreams, lights, misery and new beginnings.
1. Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf (1925)
Detailing a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a London socialite, the novel is one of Woolf’s best-known and best-loved. Look out at the world through the character’s eyes as she makes preparations for a party she is to host in the evening. The narrative travels back and forth in time, constructing a literary collage of the protagonist’s life, inner life, and the post-war society in which she lives. With the bruises of the recent war still visible in its fabric, London is more than a passive setting in the novel, and often takes centre stage with the author mentioning landmarks which both ground the story in a real location, and also serve as profound symbols for the characters’ lives. With themes as broad as feminism, homosexuality, existentialism and mental illness, Mrs Dalloway is often considered one of the most important fictional works of the 20th century.
Notable quote: “She had the perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very, dangerous to live even one day.”
2. Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman (1996)
Neil Gaiman’s first novel, Neverwhere, is one of the most popular London novels, as well as one of the best-loved urban fantasy novels. The novel introduces us to Richard Mayhew – something of an underdog, and a newcomer to the city. When he meets an injured, homeless girl (or so he thinks) and helps her, he quickly finds himself in a strange new reality incorporating the city which exists around and below the city: London Below. Now trapped in this world, and on the run from a couple of malevolent time-travellers, he must make his journey through this new vision of London. Gaiman makes wonderful use of the London Underground and its many stops, creating – for example – a real court in which an Earl resides, a sublime Angel called Islington, and the explanation behind the ubiquitous warnings to ‘Mind the Gap’. Both hilarious and unsettling, the novel never takes itself too seriously, but it is clear that plenty of meticulous research has gone into creating the novel’s magical London. If you have ever dreamt of visiting London, this is definitely the book for you.
Notable quote: “Metaphors failed him, then. He had gone beyond the world of metaphor and simile into the place of things that are, and it was changing him.”
3. Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger (2009)
Set mainly in London’s beautifully haunting Highgate Cemetery, where Niffenegger acted as a tour guide while she was researching this novel, Her Fearful Symmetry tells the story of a set of identical twins who inherit a flat in London when their aunt, who they have only met once, dies. Although their aunt and their mother, who were sisters, have been estranged for years, the twins decide to move to London as they come of age. A ghost story at its core, the novel skilfully builds characters and weaves a tapestry of delicate relationships between them – and this is what is most compelling. Touching upon the themes of love, loneliness, grief, and doppelgangers, the book takes an impossible premise and makes it plausible – all set within the stoney silence of the cemetery.
Notable quote: “There are several ways to react to being lost. One is to panic: this was usually Valentina’s first impulse. Another is to abandon yourself to lostness, to allow the fact that you’ve misplaced yourself to change the way you experience the world.”
4. London Fields, Martin Amis (1989)
Readers familiar with Amis’s work will know him to be a master at mixing dark humour, introspection, insight and anxiety, and this novel is solid evidence of this. An unlinear murder-mystery, London Fields is set in 1999, in a world which faces the looming threat of nuclear war, and a morally degraded London. A cast of grotesque, completely unredeemable characters assemble in a dank West London pub. The protagonist and narrator, Samson Young, has suffered from writer’s block for 20 years, is slowly dying of some terminal illness, and the novel opens with him expressing gratitude at having found an already-formed story just waiting to be written.
Notable quote: “People are chaotic quiddities living in one cave each. They pass the hours in amorous grudge and playback and thought experiment. At the campfire they put the usual fraction on exhibit, and listen to their own silent gibber about how they’re feeling and how they’re going down. We’ve been there. Death helps. Death gives us something to do. Because it’s a full time job looking the other way.”
5. White Teeth, Zadie Smith (2000)
Whether you love it or can’t wrap your head around it, White Teeth is one of those ambitious, expansive novels that captures the essence of a society in flux. Met by great critical acclaim, it is the story of two wartime friends – a Bangladeshi man and an English man – and their families, and their lives in London after the war. It is an epic spanning a broad range of themes: from immigration and identity, to race and assimilation, and paints a vivid picture of a multicultural London.
Notable quote: “Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories.”
6. Brick Lane, Monica Ali (2003)
In this celebrated novel, follow Nazneen – born in an idyllic village in Bangladesh in 1969 – whose life seems to have been left in the hands of the Fates. In her teens she is married off to an older man and moves to East London. Her beautiful younger sister, meanwhile, elopes with her first love, and the book explores their parallel lives in the two countries. Exploring themes of displacement, adultery, love, abuse, and survival, the book nevertheless retains its light tone and sense of humour, which keeps it from falling into the territory of melodrama and lends it a charmingly human touch.
Notable quote: “And so they entwined their lives to drink from the pools of each other’s sadness. From these special watering holes, each man drew strength.”
7. Tunnel Vision, Keith Lowe (2001)
Andy is a 20-something bookshop clerk who lives in London. He likes the London Underground… a lot. On the eve of his wedding to Rachel (whom he also met on the Tube), he makes a drunken bet with Rolf: he bets he can visit all of the London Underground stations in just one day. Only by completing this challenge can he get the Eurostar tickets to Paris, where his fiancee will be waiting for him.
Notable quote: “You see, the Tube isn’t like other railways. It’s happening, it’s now. It’s sexy.”
8. Saturday, Ian McEwan (2005)
Set in Fitzrovia over one single day – Saturday 15 February 2003 – the novel deals with the comings and goings of neurosurgeon Henry Perowne whose day culminates in a family dinner in the evening. On that particular Saturday, the protagonist goes about his chores whilst pondering a large demonstration happening that day against the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the events which led to it. His day, however, is disrupted when he meets a violent man. In this novel, McEwan explores terrorism and violence, and the fragility of human life as seen from a clinical, medical perspective. Other themes include happiness, purpose, political engagement, and rationalism.
Notable quote: “He never believed in fate or providence, or the future being made by someone in the sky. Instead, at every instant, a trillion trillion possible futures; the pickiness of pure chance and physical laws seemed like freedom from the scheming of a gloomy god.”
9. A Severed Head, Iris Murdoch (1961)
Set in and around London, this satirical novel focuses on the lives and struggles of the middle classes. The protagonist, Martin – a 40-something wine merchant – is married and having an affair with a young academic. When his wife reveals she is leaving him for her psychoanalyst, he is shocked. Soon, he falls in love with yet another woman and uncovers a web of adultery, incest, and secrets best left alone. A study of bougeois hedonism, the novel is considered one of Murdoch’s most entertaining.
Notable quote: “There is no substitute for the comfort supplied by the utterly taken-for-granted relationship…”
10. The Ministry of Fear, Graham Greene (1943)
Few writers can distil the essence of neurosis like Graham Greene. Set in London during the Blitz, this novel details the story of Arthur Rowe, who visits a forlorn fête in Bloomsbury and wins a cake. What he does not realise is that the cake was given to him by mistake, and contains something of great importance to the Germans and, upon accepting it, he has become involved in a grand conspiracy. The novel deals with mental disorder, fear, love, and the fleeting nature of memory.