Grant tries to make a virtue of narrative irresolution. We do find out a bit about the drowned woman, but with the exception of Pete, her other characters feel distant. This is probably her point, that London is a vast, alienating current that resists coherence and connections, forever churning up its inhabitants and their unfulfilled dreams. It’s an unsatisfactory get-out clause, if so.
While other novelists are distracted by Brexit, explicitly or obliquely, Linda Grant’s perspective is far wider. Her latest begins with a dead body being fished from the Thames, which seems to set up a mystery, but Grant is more interested in corralling her characters through a witty and rueful account of contemporary London. Many are newcomers to the city, and this wise and compassionate book asks if we can ever truly belong in a vast metropolis or are destined to do little more than ripple the waters and then be forgotten.
A Stranger City is a lush love letter to London that asks questions about what cost Brexit will have on her adopted city and its diverse inhabitants... Despite the odd lapse into absurdity, this is an enjoyable read; the history and ideas about what makes a city tick tumble out of her pen, and she draws her characters with a realist’s attention to detail. Yet, like the city itself, the story can feel untamed and the chapters suffer from poor signposting. With such a cast list it is easy to get lost and sometimes I found myself not knowing which strand we were in until two pages into a new chapter. Which, come to think of it, feels like an apt metaphor for Brexit itself.
Linda Grant’s new novel is concerned with those who are blown to London by political storms, aiming to stay for good but ever alert to the possibility that a root may turn out merely to be a roosting place. Brexit is the undertow, the change in the wind that makes the inhabitants twitch and shiver. What seemed permanent is now crumbling; the capital is atomised, all societal ties falling apart... Londoners of all ages, backgrounds and hues throng the novel, which takes us back to some of the territory Grant explored in her previous novel The Clothes on Their Backs (a knowing reference to which is included in this latest book)... The plot’s seemingly haphazard quality mirrors the contingency of urban life but the way Grant makes even the minor characters flare into life gives the novel richness and depth. A compelling portrait of contemporary London, it’s a novel fit for shifting, uncertain times.
Billed as ‘a novel about now, and the day after tomorrow’, this is an examination of Brexit Britain in which the ‘B’ word is never mentioned...
Grant is superb on London life, which is at once atomised and seen as a web of unlikely connections.
However, as her by turns humorous and horrifying tale circles and deepens, her deft peeling back of the capital’s layers raises increasingly unsettling questions about where all of us might be heading.
...this is no weighty, state-of-the-nation tome to be struggled through. Grant tackles Brexit, terrorism, acid attacks, racism, social media, climate change — every headline which daily sends seismic shudders through London — with the lightest of touches. This is a book to whizz through breathlessly. And to laugh at... A Stranger City feels like a very important novel for right now: no politically ponderous diatribe but a witty, sunlounger-accessible and deeply humanising story about people — about us — and the societal shipwreck we’re stuck in.