Given its history, iconic status and richly diverse tapestry, it’s little surprise that there are so many books set in London. Though there are thousands to choose from, only a select few use London almost as another character; reflecting its rhythm and charisma through the telling of the story, London Evening Standard reported.
From classics to new releases, our selection of stories follow everything from the realities of the immigrant experience to the interwoven lives of complete strangers. Here’s our pick of the best.
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Following a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway from sun up to sun down as she prepares for a part she’s hosting, this story presents readers with a snapshot into the mind of an upper class London housewife. Though there isn’t a particularly dramatic plot line, it’s Woolf’s visceral and captivating writing that takes centre stage here, and the focus is more on the inner monologues of the protagonists than the action.
How to Stop Time by Matt Haig Though Tom Hazard looks like an ordinary 40-something man, he harbours a dangerous secret. Thanks to a rare condition that slows down the rate at which he ages, he is, in fact, several centuries old and grew up in Elizabethan London.
Cutting from his past to modern day, the story’s main focus is on Hazard’s mental state and the psychological toll that immortality has taken. Given Haig’s credibility as an advocate for mental health (he wrote the bestselling Reasons to Stay Alive about his own battle with depression), this is a thoughtful exploration of love and loss.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith As the only two mixed-race girls amongst a sea of white faces at an East London dance class, it’s little wonder that the protagonists quickly develop a friendship. Whist the narrator isn’t a particularly gifted dancer, Tracey has a real talent which later propels her into a successful career as an adult.
Lasting throughout their childhood, the friendship comes to an abrupt end in their early twenties, though its impact is felt through the two women’s lives. This is a story of modern Britain and of ambition and loyalty set against the backdrop of music and dance. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017, it showcases Smith at her finest, giving her zinging, vivacious and energetic writing characters and a plot to match it.
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens Is there a more famous London story than Oliver Twist? We think not. Dickens was famous for exploring the juxtaposition of the rich and poor against the backdrop of Victorian London and Oliver Twist is no exception.
Following a young orphan as he escapes a work house for the big smoke, where he falls in with a gang of pick pockets, it casts a brutal light on the realities of living in poverty in London 150 years ago. Though it’s much grittier than the musical version, Dickens’ ability to capture the soul of the characters makes it well worth a read.
A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks It’s the week before Christmas in 2007 and life in London is as relentless as ever. Following the lives of seven locals over the course of seven days, A Week in December brings to light that which we all know about the city but rarely explore: that our lives are so closely intertwined – be that through buying your morning coffee from the same barista or living in a block of flats with several people – but we know very little about one another. In this case, Faulks weaves together the lives of his characters through their shared use of the Circle Line; following them as they face their problems under the fairy light glow of Christmas.
The author of Birdsong, Faulks’ ability to vividly capture his characters through writing is what makes his stories so compelling to read. Like a literary version of Love Actually, this is a novel you’ll race through in no time.
Brick Lane by Monica Ali Meet Nazneen – a teenager from Bangladesh who has been shipped over to England to embark on an arranged marriage with a man twenty years her senior. With not a word of English and no one to rely on but her husband, we see the madness and chaos of East London through Nazneen’s eyes.
Upon making a friend, the protagonist starts to explore the city she now must call home and, in doing so, unexpectedly ends up meeting a new love. A compelling coming-of-age story, Brick Lane explores the racial divides and cultural conflicts that make up the rich tapestry of London and the battle between self discovery and familial duty that Nazneen must face.
The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon One of the best things about London is its diversity and the millions of immigrants who contribute to its rich culture. Set in the 1950s, The Lonely Londoners explores the lives of a group of newly arrived West Indians as they try to navigate their new life in London. First published in 2006, this novel offers a modern, enlightened perspective on the reality of moving to a predominantly white where racism was both latent and active. Using his own experience, Selvon’s West Indian lilt is poignantly clear throughout the writing, adding to the immersive nature of this modern classic.
Londoners by Craig Taylor The only non-fiction book on the list, Londoners offers a modern day snapshot of the demographic that makes up this world-famous city. Acclaimed writer Craig Taylor flexed his journalistic muscles to produce a series of interviews with the residents of London, which resulted in a book much like the city itself – fantastically diverse and full of adventure. Always poignant, often funny and sometimes heartbreaking, from a guardsman at Buckingham Palace to a Pakistani trader, Taylor explores the lives of London’s and what it is that makes it such a magnetising place.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman Richard Mayhew is an ordinary man living a simple life until a simple act catapults him into a fantastical dreamlike version of London that pulses under the streets of the city. From monsters to angels and everything in between, this is a grown up fantasy written in an easy, colloquial style. Using the story device of a magical world existing alongside the normal one, unbeknownst to the public, anyone who grew up loving Harry Potter (so basically everyone) will love the adventure of Neverwhere.
The Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes Probably the most famous fictional detective of all time, Sherlock Holmes was the king of the Victorian underworld. The Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes is a collection of short stories following Holmes and his sidekick Doctor Watson as they set about solving seemingly impossible murder mysteries. Tales to look out for are A Scandal in Bohemia - which includes Holmes’ first encounter with Irene Adler and The Man with the Twisted Lip. As you can dip in and out of this collection, it’s a great choice for anyone who feels they don’t have the time to commit to a novel.