A Stranger City, by Linda Grant, Virago, 336 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0349010489
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
(TS Eliot “The Waste Land”)
In poetry and song London often features as a place of anonymous crowds where every individual is a stranger to the others. In the refrain of the Ralph McTell song, London is a byword for loneliness:
So how can you tell me you’re lonely, (…)
Let me take you by the hand
and lead you through the streets of London
I’ll show you something
to make you change your mind.
Great flows of people from the empire, the hinterland and elsewhere have passed through the megalopolis, stayed for a while, or even put down roots there. It is an overwhelming city. Or as one of Linda Grant’s characters puts it:
In the foreground the thousand streets, the low brick terraces, beneath them old farms and market gardens, remains of cottages, bridle paths, drovers’ roads, manor houses, wolf tracks in the snow. It was impossible … to tell London’s story; it was too large, too ancient, too many layers obscured it, its stories were too contradictory … the place simply defied narration.
The view of the city as a lonely anonymous place, full of people who are strangers to one another, can sometimes mutate into something more sinister. London becomes a site of deracination, full of foreigners or people from somewhere else. Cosmopolitanism is mistrusted and Londoners can be cast as “citizens of nowhere”, to borrow the words of Theresa May in her speech delivered to a party conference after the Brexit referendum.
But novelists, because they are concerned with social interactions, tend to see things differently from poets and songwriters. In his account of his travels in Egypt, even as the steamship is setting out from the French coast, Gustave Flaubert can’t help wondering about the other passengers’ lives and stories. Looking at the people in the street, the novelist Georges Perec asks: who are they, what are they doing? London, the place that defies narration, full of contradictory stories, throws down a gauntlet to Linda Grant. She takes up the challenge by asking similar questions of her multiple protagonists in A Stranger City. What are their stories and, even more intriguingly, what are their back stories? Who are their partners, their grandparents, their in-laws? What streets do they live on? Where do they meet? What do they talk about? Most importantly of all, what have they brought with them to London to create this ever-changing city?
To be a citizen of nowhere is a contradiction in terms because the very idea of citizenship grew out of cities and city states. Everybody belongs somewhere, and the Londoners in Grant’s A Stranger City are proof of this point. The novel explores not only the theme of belonging in a place and time but also what it’s like to be made to feel that you don’t belong. Three key elements are woven together: the social fabric, the urban fabric, and the historical moment, the year 2016. How far ago the referendum feels now, even before the time when Brexit meant Brexit or when it seemed necessary to get Brexit done. The real consequences of Britain’s decision are now only beginning to emerge, so that Grant’s portrait of the lived reality of London in 2016 is a timely read.
The story opens like a detective fiction, in February 2016, with the funeral of an unidentified woman who was found in the Thames the summer before and who “got herself tangled in the chains of HMS Belfast” before she could be washed out to sea. At the outset the three other main protagonists are all linked to the woman in some way: a police detective (who grew up on the river), a documentary film-maker (who grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles) and a young nurse from Dublin who went missing the same night the woman jumped off London Bridge. The dead woman haunts the detective, Pete Dutton, because she is completely unknown. Nobody has recognised her or come to identify her. She is not even a missing person, a missper case. Instead she is named DB27, the twenty-seventh dead body to be fished out of the Thames by July in 2015. The detective is like a novelist. He wants to know her story, to find out more.
CCTV had first caught her near Moorgate station. They had searched for her image in the tunnels and on the escalators but she emerges out of nowhere past cliffs of pale implacable buildings, walking, walking, walking. By Mansion House, Bank of England, Old Billingsgate, St Magnus the Martyr, London Bridge. She had climbed on to the balustrade and thrown herself over unnoticed.
Her clothes do not yield any secrets either: “her clothes when they found her, everything down to the knickers and bra, were from Marks & Spencer”. She has no money, nothing in her pockets. She is completely anonymous.
Early on, the narrative parts company with detective fiction. Storytelling takes over and ramifies into many accounts as the hierarchy of main and secondary characters disappears. The focus soon shifts from documentary film-maker Alan McBride to his own father, a radio chat-show host “known in Northern Ireland as the heavyweight Wogan”, to Alan’s wife, Francesca, to Francesca’s Persian grandparents, Younis and Amira, and their tales of their arrival in Britain and their lives in Iran. The detective Pete Dutton’s story yields to that of his wife, Marie, who is sick with cancer, recovers and sets up a café in the Lake District. The nurse Chrissie’s story leads to that of her flatmate Marco. When Alan and Francesca set up home in Wall Park a whole new carnivalesque cast appears from the street, Mrs Audrey Shapiro, a German couple with a young daughter, and Vic, an eccentric widower with white hair tied back in a ponytail who owns the record shop and two Afghan hounds. All these people are interconnected, by kinship, relationships, chance encounters and location.
Clothes play an important part, not only because they are social signifiers that allow us to quickly visualise and place the characters by generation and class but also because they are a means by which the protagonists can apprehend one another. The material culture of an individual brings that person vividly to life, often with comedic effect, particularly in the case of Mrs Audrey Shapiro, who is fond of nylon. This is Francesca’s first sighting of Mrs Shapiro.
Francesca was distracted from her troubles by Mrs Audrey Shapiro’s lipstick painted on in a cupid’s bow. No grey roots were showing through the lacquered helmet of waves. Her whole appearance was a study in the effortful exercise of getting dressed in the morning: the coffee-coloured tights, the low-heeled court shoes with gold snaffles, the comfortless girdle flattening a sagging midriff, the brassiere like a pair of pale pink ice-cream sundae cups, the navy skirt and gilt-buttoned blazer with white piping at the collar, an outfit finished off with a scarf knotted at the neck and held in place by a butterfly clip which spread its wings and threatened at any moment to fly off and settle above a pencilled eyebrow.
But astute observation can work both ways. Mrs Shapiro is the best creation in the book, comfortable in her own skin, proud of her appearance, loyal best friend to her neighbour Mrs Simarjit Kaur Khalistan. She has fond memories of sex with her pharmacist husband, “brainy” Bernie, who went to school at Hackney Downs with Harold Pinter. Francesca takes over their abandoned chemist’s shop and fills the old mahogany display counter (in the words of Audrey Shapiro) with “little glass birds, complicated coffee pots, Parisian notebooks, German pens and other tchotchkes [knickknacks]”. When Francesca has a grand opening for her shop, inviting glamourous people from the West End along with the neighbours, this is how Mrs Shapiro observes Francesca’s clan.
A Saab pulled up and an elderly couple were assisted out by a younger man and a woman with fine blonde hair pinned up in a loose chignon, her neck free to form a showcase for pearl and diamond earrings. They all had wonderful, very white teeth.
We have already been told that Francesca’s Gehari grandparents left Iran in 1979 when the Ayatollah came to power. Her Iranian-born father became a successful dentist and married Hilary, an Englishwoman, also a dentist. Audrey picks up on all this quickly, also on the fact that the Iranian side is Jewish.
There was a glance of recognition from the vantage point of the pavement as Audrey studied these people. Were they not (the older couple and the younger fellow, not the pale-faced lady) what Bernie would have called ‘our cousins’ and might she try a sly shalom on them to establish their complicity?
Audrey Shapiro is like a female Leopold Bloom, accepting people and their fragilities with humanity and humour: “working in a chemist’s shop you were exposed to the gross materialisation of the human body, you knew about suppositories and condoms, a woman with her face burning red would come in for the jelly for her Dutch cap”.
The other characters are flawed, complex and contradictory, tempting the reader to judge too hastily before their full stories unfold. Francesca is annoying, entitled and superficial. Even her partner, Alan, who finds her physically exciting, sees her mind as “a clutter of florist’s flowers, expensive art books, shoes and hard-to-obtain French cheeses”. And yet, when she commits an error and is encouraged to take voluntary redundancy from her job at a prestigious auction house, the reader feels sympathy for her. Suddenly, no longer privileged, she feels like an outsider. “If she was Lord Peregrine Occasional-Table’s daughter they would have given her a brief wrist-slap and allowed her to carry on.” But she overcomes her disappointment and goes on to display intuition and open-minded resourcefulness.
Marco is particularly repellent, bland, and cruel, seen by Alan as “a metrosexual smoothie with an olive complexion and wavy dark hair full of product”. Marco’s real name is Neil and he is from Aylesbury, and in the privacy of his bedroom he keeps a framed photograph of his grandfather, “Soad Itani, from a city called Tyre in the Lebanon”. Marco seems incurious about Tyre and crafts a plastic persona for himself, more alive online than in the real world. And yet something terrible happens to him that forces him to rediscover a blocked-out relationship with his parents and to re-evaluate the link to his Lebanese grandfather.
If cities take their form from the people who live in them, they in turn shape the lives and habits of their inhabitants. And when the protagonists’ embedded and branching stories threaten to overwhelm the reader in their variousness, it is the city that works like a mesh to hold them together. (Another mesh that is deftly woven is that of reference to other writers, Dickens of course, Giorgio Bassani, Joyce, Eliot, Grant’s own work.) In its treatment of place, A Stranger City draws on a tradition of detective fiction that gives as much importance to urban landscapes as to the people involved in the investigation. Two symbolic places stand out: the first is the river, with its banks and bridges, and the second is the marshland near the street where Francesca and Alan set up their new home.
The spirit of Charles Dickens and his Thames novel Our Mutual Friend hovers over the whole book. In both novels the river is centrally important: people disappear into it while the police try to find them. While the detective Pete Dutton grew up on the river and is not afraid to take a boat out on it, even for him it is a force of nature, vast, and ever-changing. Looking at London Bridge, where the woman jumped, an “undistinguished, concrete and steel, box girder construction and only forty-odd years old. An unromantic structure apart from its famous name”, he contemplates the Thames:
The river was black and cold today. It seemed scummy and foetid. Along the bottom were the bones of sailors and of fallen women. Hardly anyone knew of Dead Man’s Hole, the old mortuary where they kept the bloated corpses of the suicides pulled from the river. He had seen the long pole, the row of hooks. The sight sickened him. Had she known … ?
For Chrissie, the nurse from Dublin, the river is hostile, unpredictable and dangerous, not like the Liffey. But Alan loves the “general furniture of the riverbank: power stations, bridges, wharves, footpaths, riverside pubs, the Thames Barrier, container ships, the port of London”.
The uncertain topography of the marshland, near the railway and the former railwaymen’s housing where Alan and Francesca settle, is also dangerous. If Dickens can introduce death by spontaneous combustion into his Bleak House, Linda Grant creates something equally improbable in her marshland: a captive elephant. The marsh is a quaking no-man’s-land, neither water nor ground, populated by rats. Francesca becomes caught in a shower there one day by a low dark bridge smelling of “rotting vegetation, mould, the wet fur of scurrying small animals”. She pushes along through the tunnel: “after a few steps she reached daylight and a yard and a back door. There was a flaking sign on it which had long ago been painted with a rough hand. ENTRY 1d. Was it a flat number? A maisonette?” Later Francesca remembers that as she had been about to knock she had heard a noise that made her jump out of her skin and retreat. It was “the distant crashing, trumpeting sound of, of all things, an elephant, it was simply too ridiculous”. It turns out the elephant is real and it reappears under the care of a sinister grandmother and her grandchildren, semi-feral twin girls who push the German girl into the water. We are not told if the elephant is African or Indian, but the marshland, the buried pre-decimal signage, and its strange inhabitants, are all leftovers from Victorian times, an age of empire. Indeed, the elephant can be read as a metaphor for the nostalgia that led to Brexit and the marshland as its shaky ground. The city grows stranger and stranger.
The main historical event of the book is the Brexit referendum (but racially motivated and terrorist attacks also feature). The vote to leave takes place in the middle of the story although the B word is never mentioned by name. The economist Kevin O’Rourke observes in his Short History of Brexit, also published in 2019, that “it is impossible to write about Brexit completely dispassionately”. This is something of an understatement. What might start out as a seemingly simple quest to leave the single market for free trade or some new customs union can have complex and unforeseen consequences, for education and employment and citizenship and far more besides. For the EU and the UK, Brexit reveals that economics, politics, and culture are inextricably intertwined. As O’Rourke sums it up: “the core of the EU remains its customs union and Single Market. But Europe has always been a political project. It has always been about peace. It was never just about the money.”
Linda Grant approaches the subject inductively, first from a cultural and then a political perspective, moving from questions of belonging to an uglier aspect of the question, the rise in xenophobia, intolerance and racism. The first to be affected by it are the old people in their sheltered accommodation. “Only when Younis was dressed in his pyjamas and Amira in her nightgown lying under pink sheets … did they whisper to each other in Farsi.” Their neighbours suddenly seem very pleased with themselves, complaining about smells of Persian cooking, letting out their suppressed dislike of those who are different from them. There is a boorish intolerance and a loss of civility as the residents are “given permission to give into their basest instincts”, making negative comments about the Polish handyman and racially insulting the black cleaning lady. Younis and Amira become uncomfortable speaking their own language within earshot of others so that Younis says to his wife: “we will no longer speak in our own tongue, outside this bed we will talk only their language even if we sound like fools”.
The same goes for the German family: “now they would talk a little less German in the house and they would no longer chat in German outside but that was the only difference, there was nothing at all to worry about”. The citizens no longer feel comfortable in public spaces. Their peoplehood (who their people were, who they are) was never a problem before. Now they feel that they don’t belong. Their customs and culture which they had brought from their previous homes, and which contributed to making London an exciting multifarious city, are under threat. The Germans decide to leave. The Persians become increasingly lonely and isolated. The social fabric starts to become damaged. The city is no longer what it was. It seems alienated from itself.
More ominously, trains rattling by through the countryside start to take people to the Channel to be deported. When Alan and Marie head to the West Country on an initial scoping trip to see where Marie might set up her café, they see referendum signs embedded in all the fields and hedgerows:
Leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave
There is a whole paragraph of them. “It’s not a very subtle message, is it?” Pete remarks. It suddenly becomes clear that “leave” is not about leaving the EU but rather an order to all those people who are from elsewhere that they should go.
Many of the characters in this book have a dual background or are from somewhere else. If one of their parents is not from outside England, then their grandparents or great-grandparents were. Fear of foreigners is nothing new in Britain, but there is also a tradition of resistance to xenophobia. Back in 1700 Daniel Defoe published his best-selling rough satire “The True Born Englishman” to defend the Dutch King William III against charges of foreignness. Defoe dismisses the notion that there can be such a thing as a one hundred per cent English person. The English are heterogeneous by nature and the idea of a “true born Englishman” is a fiction.
The Scot, Pict, Britain, Roman, Dane, submit,
And with the English-Saxon all unite
Grant’s understanding of citizenship is inclusive. So, for Hilary the English dentist and her Iranian-born husband the Brexit vote is incomprehensible. There is something un-English about it. For others it is a slap in the face. “What are those small animals that run in a great herd to the edge of a cliff and throw themselves over?’ Younis asks Hilary. His son gives a scientific explanation: the mass suicide of lemmings is a misconception. “When population density becomes too great they aim themselves at a body of water looking for a new habitat. Largely they survive the fall, but often they don’t survive the swim.”
In A Stranger City multiple and diverse life stories are the real drama that outweighs the national story implicit in the background Brexit theme. All nations put a certain amount of effort into curating and maintaining their national story so that with the passing of generations the immutability of the story appears imbued with the stability of fact. Against these simplifications and omissions Grant’s overriding message is one of complexity. We all need to tell our own stories and pay attention to the fascinating stories of others. A Stranger City achieves this both intuitively and intelligently while wearing its wisdom and learning lightly.
Kathleen Shields lives in Dublin. Until recently she lectured in French at Maynooth University.