London Fiction: a Reading List

A couple of years ago I was involved in a panel event on London fiction. As part of my preparation I decided to put together a list of novels that are set in London and shed some interesting light on the city. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Londonstani by Gautam Malkani
  • The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon
  • Brick Lane by Monica Ali
  • Brixton Rock by Alex Wheatle (also The Dirty South and others)
  • Last Orders by Graham Swift
  • The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi
  • Incendiary by Chris Cleave
  • Mother London by Michael Moorcock
  • The Scholar by Courttia Newland
  • London Fields by Martin Amis
  • The Book of Dave by Will Self
  • Saturday by Ian McEwan
  • An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel
  • Heligoland by Shena Mackay
  • Corpsing by Toby Litt
  • Metroland by Julian Barnes
  • When We Were Bad by Charlotte Mendelson
  • City of the Mind by Penelope Lively
  • Peerless Flats by Esther Freud
  • Lux the Poet by Martin Millar
  • The London Pigeon Wars by Patrick Neate
  • Nirvana Bites by Debi Alper
  • Only in London by Hanan Al-Shaykh
  • Millennium People by J.G. Ballard

You’ll notice that for the most part it’s a fairly contemporary list. Dickens, of course, has plenty to say about London, but I was thinking of books that give a flavour of today’s city. My idea was that I could give these books to someone who’d never visited the city, and they’d have a picture of what London is like. Establishing a complete list of London novels would take a lifetime, of course. My aim was to compile not a complete list, but an interesting one.

What do you think? Have you read some of these? Which essential London novels have I left out? I’d love to hear your suggestions, so please leave them in the comments below.

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There are 14 comments

  1. Hi Andrew,

    I’ve read the Selvon, the Ali, the Kureishi and the Barnes.

    I think your list should include NW by Zadie Smith and Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton. (Maybe this one is too old for your list like Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh)

    1. Good suggestions, Emma! Not sure why I left out Zadie Smith. NW is not my favourite book, but it does fit the criteria. Hangover Square and Vile Bodies sound interesting too—I’ve never read them, but like the sound of them. Thanks 🙂

  2. Nice to see you back blogging, Andrew. Been missing your posts. Wonderful list! I see that your favourite Alex Wheatle is there on the list 🙂 I hope to read Ian MacEwan’s ‘Saturday’ some time. Julian Barnes is one of my favourite writers and so I hope to get to ‘Metroland’ at some point. Isn’t one of my favourite books ‘On the Holloway Road’ also set in London (atleast a part of the story)? 🙂

    I will bookmark this post and come back to it when I want to read novels on London. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks Vishy! It’s been a really busy time for me, and I’ve let the blogging slip. I’ve been missing it, actually, and also missing reading other people’s blogs like yours, but time has been really short. I always seem to be rushing to finish something! Hey, thanks for mentioning ‘On the Holloway Road’ 🙂 Would have been a little too self-promotional for me to include it in my own reading list, I think 🙂

  3. I haven’t read any of them but heard of quite a few. I would add The Road Home by Rose Tremain. Now that I think about it I haven’t read that many novels set in London. I did try to finish Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd but didn’t get very far.

  4. This is a good idea for a list. I agree that in order to keep it to the topic of what London is like now, it makes sense not to include writers like Dickens.

    I do feel inadequate that I have not read any of these Books however! I will dig a bit into some of the titles and perhaps a read few.

    1. Hey, don’t feel inadequate, Brian! There are so many books, and it’s impossible to read all of them. I tend to read more London books because it’s my home town, that’s all. With most lists, I have a pretty low hit rate 🙂

  5. I just finished Last Orders about two weeks ago. What I found to be so masterful in the writing is Swift’s ability to write such an understated novel. I think in today’s parlance this would be labeled “quiet.” This shows so much control in his writing. I mean, for the entirety of the story, the men are traveling to scatter Jack’s ashes. While they are en route to complete the task, the whole of each man’s life is revealed — his triumphs and failures, his joys and sorrows. These characters will stay with me for a long time to come.

    1. I agree, Jackie. It is very quiet and controlled, and so much is revealed in such an apparently simple story. I’ve only read one of his other books, The Sweet Shop Owner, and it was in a similar style. He really does have a gift for understated writing that reveals a lot about characters and about life. And this is a little off-topic, but Last Orders is one of the few stories in which I enjoyed both the book and the movie. Have you seen it?

  6. I’m late to this post (and to all of your more recent ones), but may I add Keith Ridgeway’s Hawthorn and Child? I’ve been in London three times in the last three years, and I’ve never looked at the London surveillance society the same since reading this book.

    Also, I know you’re focusing on contemporary writers, but I very much enjoyed Richard Harris Barham’s entertaining collection of poems and stories from the 19th century, The Ingoldsby Legends, and wish someone would attempt to write something of the same for London today.

    1. Of course, Scott—Hawthorn & Child is a great one to add to the list. Surveillance is certainly a big part of the London experience these days. And thanks for mentioning The Ingoldsby Legends. I don’t know that one, so look forward to reading it.

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