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World Book Day: around London in nine books

Emily Steer

While we often look for novels to take us to a place far, far away, some books can help us to rediscover the magic of our own city. So, if you’re looking to take your mind on a trip around London town, where do you begin? Try out these recommendations for starters: 


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If you fancy slipping into long-lost Soho (more precisely, 7 Meard Street), visit the world of one-time Soho-ite Sebastian Horsely. His book 'Dandy in the Underworld' comes loaded with prostitutes, brothels, drug-taking and more prostitutes. This is an egocentric love letter to a filthy Soho by way of Quentin Crisp’s 'Naked Civil Servant'.

Or by contrast, try Ian McEwan’s 'Saturday', which speaks of a London just forming, the comfortable Fitzrovia-based middle classes living in the shadow of terrorism-paranoia. 


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When Monica Ali published 'Brick Lane' in 2003 the street was just at the beginning of its boom in popularity. The book charts Nazneen’s move from Bangladesh to east London, throwing the focus on the communities who gave this street its buzz. 

In 2007, Xiaolu Guo published 'A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers'. What better cliché to represent the changing face of east London than the Hackney-dwelling bisexual veggie who heroine Zhuang falls in love with?


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Zoe Heller’s ‘Notes on a Scandal’ sees comprehensive school teacher and Primrose Hill-based Sheba entering into an affair with a 15-year-old male student. Obsessive friendships, class divides and press-hounding present a Hampstead Heath community that isn’t above local gossip. 


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North London doesn’t fare too well in literature, and Will Self’s ‘How the Dead Live’ presents a similarly cold version of the northern suburbs. His hero Lily dies in the Royal Ear Hospital and is transported to her banal new life in NW’s ‘Dulston’ post-death; she gets a job in PR, smokes without fear and is followed by lumps of all the fat she has ever gained and lost in her life. Oh, and no one notices she’s dead.


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Zadie Smith’s 'White Teeth' takes readers back to the mid-'70s, to a racially mixed Willesden, where a halal shop butcher inadvertently saves the life of a divorced, working-class local.


South London is by far the least explored patch of town in recent lit. Gillian Tindall’s 'The House by the Thames' is set on the South Bank – 49 Bankside to be exact – and takes the reader on a trip through the years, and the various myths that are cobbled together from strands of disparate information. 


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The tube

A tour of London wouldn’t be complete without heading underground. Keith Lowe takes his 'Tunnel Vision' protagonist for an every-stop-journey through the tube network, following a drunken bet the day before his wedding. Of course, personal journeys also ensue. 

What are your favourite books based in London? Let us know in the comments! 

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