A hundred pages into Linda Grant’s A Stranger City you experience a sudden clang of duh, obviously: of course any novel set in contemporary London must, by definition, be a Brexit novel. No story that opens, as Grant’s does, in February 2016 — at the funeral of a Jane Doe found in the Thames — and continues four years into the future can avoid the defining event of 21st-century Britain. “The big thing”, as it is first referred to, will swamp our fiction for the foreseeable future.
Not that A Stranger City is advertised as being about Brexit. Indeed, the word is never used, which only adds to a paranoid atmosphere. This is a story about Londoners and the impact upon them of historical events beyond their control: retired policeman Pete, frustrated film-maker Alan, his spoilt wife Francesca and her Persian grandparents, Lebanese PR Marco, dozens of culturally diverse neighbours in gentrifying Gunnersbury, and salt-of-the-earth Irish nurse Chrissie, an anchor in the fast shifting sands
But 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.
There are great deadpan vignettes, such as Pete, forced by his wife to move out of London to open a tea shop, playing tricks on customers’ children: “One of the mothers had accused him of child abuse, had got hot and bothered and angry and stood for a few minutes outside warning customers not to go in, and this had led to a short-lived rumour that he was a paedophile.”
Grant is a piercing analyst of relationships too (her Austen-like knack for narratorial irony is particularly delicious when dissecting Alan and Francesca’s early romance). Such humour serves only to emphasise the disturbing storyline. Invented events (terrorist van-rammings, weeks of snow, mass deportations) are disorientingly plausible, and Grant’s London develops into a dystopia. At least, dystopia as I’m writing this — who knows how prescient her plot twists may be?
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.
A Stranger City by Linda Grant (Virago, £16.99)