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London: A Novel Way to Explore

by rob-gordon August 2011 - last edited February 2013 by Community Manager

London is more than just a capital city – it’s a cultural hub. Be it music, writing, theatre or art, London has been the birthplace of innumerable creative works.

If you're visiting our city anytime soon, there's no better way to gain an intimate feel for its history, culture, neighbourhoods, people and underbelly, than to lose yourself in one of the myriad stories that have been set here. To inspire you, here is my pick of some classic novels for evoking London life, past and present...

Neverwhere - Neil Gaiman

Neverwhere starts with a simple premise: what if there was a London we couldn’t see, where the names of boroughs and landmarks have quite literal implications?

In this urban fantasy, a businessman falls through the cracks into 'London Below', a bizarre and alternative world beneath the streets of 'London Above', where Angel really is an angel, and Blackfriars and Islington become living characters. Originally a television show devised by Neil Gaiman and Lenny Henry, Gaiman then built upon his world with this brilliant novelisation – the next time you're in London, remember to ‘Mind the Gap’.

High Fidelity - Nick Hornby

From his non-fiction debut Fever Pitch to the bestselling novel About A Boy, Nick Hornby has set many of his books in the nation’s capital. However, the novel that best creates the feeling of a local, personal London is High Fidelity. Set in the northern neighbourhoods of Holloway and Crouch End, it tells the story of a list-making obsessive and record shop-owner who is looking back on past relationships with regret. Equal parts humorous and touching, the novel is underscored by its London setting – in particular the protagonist’s record shop, Championship Vinyl, and a collection of bars and clubs.

 

Crouch End Broadway by jystewart on Flickr

Crouch End Broadway by jystewart on Flickr

 

Mrs Dalloway - Virginia Woolf

Seen by many as Virginia Woolf’s magnum opus, Mrs Dalloway documents a single June day in post-World War I London. It follows middle-aged, middle-class and comfortably off Clarissa Dalloway, wife of a Conservative MP, as she prepares to host a party in the evening, while in a different part of town, shell-shocked war veteran Septimus Smith spends the day in the park, struggling with post-traumatic stress. This artistic critique of class and psychology is considered one of the best English language novels ever written and vividly conjures "the triumph and jingle" of London; of Mrs Dalloway's walk from her Westminster home, over St. James's Park, Piccadilly and along Bond Street to Oxford Street, to Septimus's journey via Harley Street to Regent's Park.

 

St James's Park by bortescristian on Flickr

St James's Park by bortescristian on Flickr

 

White Teeth - Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith’s award-winning debut novel White Teeth focuses on the lives of three families over three generations. All from different backgrounds – culturally, ideologically and geographically – their lives are irrevocably entwined through a series of coincidences and secret pasts. Spanning from 1975 to the turn of the century, the story focuses on the diverse sprawl of immigrant family life in the capital's northwest suburbs of Kilburn, Willesden and Hampstead in a nuanced and humorous way, with a wholly unexpected and dramatic conclusion in Trafalgar Square.

 

Kilburn graffiti - 72 languages saying love and peace by mckaysavage on Flickr

Kilburn graffiti - 72 languages saying love and peace by mckaysavage on Flickr

 

Mother London - Michael Moorcock

Michael Moorcock’s Mother London is a relatively unknown gem. Shortlisted for the Whitbread fiction prize, the novel follows a group of out-patients from a psychiatric hospital as they take a trip to the capital. The three patients, all of whom have the gift of telepathy, experience the history of London from the Blitz to the late 1980s via a series of delusional episodes and overheard snippets rather than a traditional linear narrative, and through the lives of Londoners on the margins of society, we learn what it really means to survive in this confusing metropolis.

 

View from St. Paul's by pmorgan on Flickr

View from St. Paul's by pmorgan on Flickr

 

Thanks to Flickr photographers pmorgan, mckaysavage, bortescristian, jystewart, Zyllan and Mark Ramsay for the header shot. And don't forget to check out our recent feature on London's brilliant bookshops.


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About the author: rob-gordon

Rob Gordon