Thursday, 2 August 2018

Six of the Best: Books Set in British Cities

by Catriona Troth

You could often be forgiven for thinking – at least as far as fiction is concerned – that British urban life begins and ends at the boundaries of Greater London. In the immediate postwar period, books like John Braine’s Room at the Top and Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning featured northern cities. But it is hard to find modern equivalents.

Birmingham is relatively well served, with books such as Nice Work by David Lodge, Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters Club, Meera Syall’s Anita and Me or – more recently – Kit de Waal’s My Name is Leon. But my beloved Coventry – so rich in music and stories – scarcely appears in novels at all. (If anyone knows better, I’d love to hear from you!)

But here are six books that do capture a slice of urban life outside the Metropolis.

BRADFORD: Girl Zero by AA Dhand

Like all the best crime writers, Dhand explores the dark underbelly of the place he loves – and his Bradford can get very dark indeed. His first novel tackled drugs and racial violence. This second book opens with his detective, Harry Virdee, confronting the body of his own niece. To begin with it seems likely that her death is linked to his brother’s nefarious activities. But (reminiscent of Craven in the incomparable 80s television series, Edge of Darkness) he soon finds she has been uncovering some dark and dangerous secrets of her own – in this case the activities of a child grooming gang. These are modern atrocities crying out to be explored through the medium of crime fiction. Yet there is so much danger of either tarring a whole community with the sins of a few, or looking away for fear of causing offense, that perhaps it’s taken a writer from a British Asian community to dare to turn this into fiction.

Read my full review on BookMuseUK. 

BRISTOL: The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

This book won the 2013 Costa Book of the Year for mental health nurse Filer, who has used his experience to create a rare and honest portrayal of schizophrenia. But the book is also an examination of the impact of grief and loss on a family. And if this all sounds heavy, it is also at times both funny and touching.

In the end notes, Filer describes envisaging the book as ‘the crumpled stack of Matt’s writing and drawings; the typewriter pages with their smudged ink; the letters from Denise; the words that Patricia cut up and stuck down with Pritt Stick.” What a joy that would be to discover in a book shop – if hopelessly expensive to produce.

Read my full review on BookMuseUK. 

GLASGOW: Psychoraag by Suhayl Saadi

Psychoraag takes place in the course of one evening. It is the last night of broadcasting for an Asian radio station in Glasgow, and DJ Zaf is alone. Zaf’s thoughts range over the changing nature of the South Asian community who are his audience, his parents’ long journey from Pakistan to Glasgow, his sometimes rocky relationship with his girlfriend Babs, and his even rockier relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Zilla, whom he may or may not have started on a path that led to drug-addiction and prostitution. As the long night wears on, it becomes harder and harder to work out what is really happening and what is the product of Zaf’s exhausted brain.

Written in broad Glaswegian dialect, peppered with expressions in Urdu, Arabic, Punjabi and even Gaelic, Psychoraag is a rollercoaster of a ride, not for the fainthearted.

Read my full review on BookMuseUK.

IPSWICH: 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

A wonderful, lyrical novel exploring what is means for a small family to have been separated by a war, to have undergone terrible experiences and keep secrets from each other – and then to have to pick up the threads of their lives again after the war. The main characters are, like many others in East Anglia, Polish. The father fought with the Polish arm of the RAF; the wife and son are refugees, traced to a Red Cross camp after the War. 

LIVERPOOL – An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge

Bainbridge’s classic captures life Liverpool as it must have been when my parents met there in the late 1940s. She also captures the now all-but vanished world of the repertory theatre, as the action is set in the midst of a Christmas production of Peter Pan – with the title referencing Peter’s chilling quote: “to die would be an awfully big adventure.” So much of post-War British society is encapsulated – from the shabbiness and deprivation to the entrenched classism and the repression of its sexual politics. You know this is a world that is on the point of vanishing. 

SHEFFIELD: The Year of the Runways by Sunjeev Sahota

< The story opens with a scene that echoes the early episodes of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. Young men, far from home, packed together in cramped, basic conditions, working long hours on a construction site to send money back to their families. Through the lens of these four lives, Sahota reveals the human face of economic migration, the myth of return, and such headline fodder as illegal workers, scam marriages and abused student visas. This is a book that will shake your belief that we are in any way a ‘fair’ or ‘equal’ society. Like Dickens’ Victorians, we climb on the backs of an army of invisible poor. The only difference is the poverty is now globalised.

Read my full review on BookMuseUK.

1 comment:

  1. The only one I know is 'An Awfully Big Adventure' but I definitely want to read 'Psychoraag. I love books written in dialect.