Tag Archives: second world war fiction

64. London Belongs to Me, Norman Collins (1945)

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.

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95. Enigma, Robert Harris (1995)

I think Robert Harris is one of the great entertainers of the last twenty years. He can write a thriller like no one else, and his take on historical fiction is consistently challenging (although I have to say I struggled with Pompeii which seemed to be largely about Roman sewage technology). Enigma is my favourite for two reasons. Firstly, and obviously, it’s incredibly exciting, one of the few books that genuinely did keep me up all night. The second reason is more personal. My mother worked at Bletchley Park as a young woman during the war. She didn’t talk about her experiences for years, and I remember how shocked she was when books started to come out about the codebreakers in the 80s, as they’d all been sworn to eternal secrecy. I lent her Enigma and she read it with a certain amount of trepidation, but she was blown away by how accurate it was, right down to the freezing temperatures in the huts where they worked. She remembers Alan Turing, by the way, as a very shy eccentric man who wore odd socks.

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