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Five extraordinary books set in the capital that every Londoner should read

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It takes a very special kind of writer to capture the soul of London, in all its transient colour and enormity. 

We've selected our five favourite reads that conjure up the feel of the capital and its people across very different eras - from Dickensian fog and filth to Blitz-time drama and the rich cultural tapestry of the East End.

Come take a look at our pick and recommend your own go-to London novels in the comments section, below. 


London slums in an edition of Bleak House

London slums in an edition of Bleak House

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Best for: the poverty and despair of Victorian London

"Now, these tumbling tenements contain, by night, a swarm of misery. As, on the ruined human wretch, vermin parasites appear, so, these ruined shelters have bred a crowd of foul existence that crawls in and out of gaps in walls and boards; and coils itself to sleep, in maggot numbers, where the rain drips in; and comes and goes, fetching and carrying fever, and sowing more evil in its every footprint than Lord Coddle, and Sir Thomas Doddle, and the Duke of Foddle, and all the fine gentlemen in office, down to Zoddle, shall set right in 500 years - though born expressly to do it"

No-one conjures up the seamier side of London quite like Charles Dickens in Bleak House. The stagnation and decay of the Victorian capital is played out both physically and metaphorically; the fog hanging over Lincoln's Inn Field at the beginning of the novel, and the filthy horrors of Tom-all-Alone's slum, are soon to be reflected in the moral cloud and murky intentions that inflict the story's lead characters, both rich and poor. 

Buy it here


The BBC's adaptation of The Night Watch

The BBC's adaptation of The Night Watch

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

Best for: the glamour and tragedy of World War II London

"The streets were deserted, and lightly fogged. In raids, like this, Pimlico had an odd sort of haunted feel – the feel of having until recently swarmed with lives, which had all been violently extinguished or chased off... The place was uncanny: quieter, in its way, than the countryside would have been; and the view down the Thames, to Westminster, was all of humped, irregular masses – as if the war had stripped London back, made a series of villages of it, each of them defending itself against unknown forces, darkly and alone"

For an evocative portrayal of the horrors and seize-the-moment highs of Blitz-time London, look no further than this addictive read from Sarah Waters. Narrated through the eyes of four characters, The Night Watch weaves together threads of quietly devastating domestic detail - illicit homosexuality, fevered affairs, backstreet abortions and unrequited love - all played out against the grim reality of daily air raids.

Buy it here


hand

The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell

Best for: the creative highs of 1950s Soho

"Everything Lexie sees seems freighted with significance: the fluttering ribbon on one of the sailor's hats, a marmalade cat washing itself on a window, the billow of steam that gathers in the air outside that bakery, the chalked words – Italian? Portuguese? – on a board outside a shop, the strains of music, interspersed with laughter, that wreathe up from a grating in the pavement, the fur-collared coat and gold-clasped bag of a woman passing on the opposite pavement. Lexie drinks it in, every detail, with a feeling between panic and euphoria: this is perfect, this is all perfect, it couldn't be more perfect, but what if she can't remember it all, what if even the tiniest element were to slip from her?"

Maggie O'Farrell is a master storyteller and her tale of the frenzied love affair between the charismatic Innes - caught in an unhappy marriage - and his young protégé Lexie, captures London at the cusp of a cultural revolution. You can't fail to be seduced by her kooky cast of artists, writers and dreamers, all using London - and particularly the creative lure of Soho - as their place to break free of the stuffy conventions that continue to suppress those around them. 

Buy it here


Brick Lane; the film version

Brick Lane; the film version

Brick Lane by Monica Ali

Best for: the eccentrities, joy and lonliness of multicultural London

"Nazneen waved at the tattoo lady. The tattoo lady was always there when Nazneen looked out across the dead grass and broken paving stones to the block opposite. Most of the flats that closed three sides of a square had net curtains and the life behind was all shapes and shadows. But the tattoo lady had no curtains at all. Morning and afternoon she sat with her big thighs spilling over the sides of her chair, tipping forward to drop ash in a bowl, tipping back to slug from her can. She drank now, and tossed the can out of the window."

Monica Ali's debut novel is based around a young Bangladeshi woman who exchanges her village home for a flat in the East End of London in the 1980s. Its richly imagined prose breathes life into the multitude of faces drawn to Tower Hamlets; and the delights, humour and friction brought about by their contrasting backgrounds and narratives.

Buy it here


About a Boy

The film adapotation of About a Boy

About A Boy by Nick Hornby

Best for: a wry, witty look at the people of 90s London

"Marcus couldn't believe it. Dead. A dead duck. OK, he'd been trying to hit it on the head with a piece of sandwich, but he tried to do all sorts of things, and none of them had ever happened before. He'd tried to get the highest score on the Stargazer machine in the kabab shop on Hornsey road - nothing. He'd tried to read Nicky's thoughts by staring at the back of his head every maths lesson for a week - nothing. It really annoyed him that the only thing he'd ever achieved through trying was something he hadn't really wanted to do that much in the first place. And anyway, since when did hitting a bird with a sandwich ever kill it? People spend half their lives throwing thing"

Nick Hornby's sharply observed cast of London characters will ring true with anyone who's spent time is Islington around the late 90s. There's terminal bachelor Will, die-hard hippie Fiona and teenage outcast Marcus. Darker themes are explored too, but it's really the pace, dialogue and irreverent humour painted by Hornby that brings London - in its peculiar, matey brilliance - to life.

Buy it here

Words: Anna Brech

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