OK, I’m cheating here, because I’ve just finished reading this and it’s been washed into the Top 100 on a tidal wave of enthusiasm. London Belongs to Me is exactly the sort of novel that I dream about discovering, and so rarely do. It’s a big busy book about the residents of a south London boarding house during the Second World War, and it’s written in an elegant, conversational tone that disguises the superb craftsmanship of the narrative. Collins (a hugely successful author who went on to become one of the most important post-War TV executives) handles his large, diverse cast with a juggler’s skill, and manages to juxtapose sentiment, comedy and hard-boiled action without ever striking a false note. There’s a camp old retired actress living upstairs, a phony Spiritualist medium in the basement and all human life in between. They eat disgusting food, smoke a lot of fags and trundle around streets that we are still familiar with. The fact that it’s set in Kennington, just down the road from my house, makes it a special joy. Oddly, the introduction to the Penguin reissue goes to great lengths to tell us that London Belongs to Me is a second-rate novel, ‘just a soap opera’ etc, which is absolute bollocks. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Tag Archives: popular fiction
Another one to file alongside Birdsong in that brief flowering of early 90s popular fiction. I distinctly recall seeing this book in the old Books Etc shop on Charing Cross Road, picking it up because I liked the pretty cover and thinking ‘okay, this sounds interesting, I’ll give it a whirl’. That doesn’t happen any more, does it? Obviously Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is heavy going what with all the massacres, earthquakes, rape, torture etc, but the characters are so powerful, and the story so strong, that it’s much more than just a catalogue of misery. De Bernieres is particularly good at evoking physical sensations that pinpoint the emotions – the smell of pines, the pain of falling onto a broken pot, the taste of wine and so on. I was particularly impressed by his no-nonsense treatment of the gay character, and I still laugh about the story of the English officer dropped behind enemy lines but only able to speak the Ancient Greek he learned at public school. (Have I misremembered this?) I tried a couple of De Bernieres’s earlier novels and really didn’t like them – I don’t get on with magical realism. (I can hear the hi-lit types out there sighing ‘Oh Rupert really…’)