A Stranger City

Linda Grant

Published by Virago 2 May 2019

336pp, hardback, £16.99

Reviewed by Alison Burns

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Shortly before the UK’s infamous Brexit referendum, an unknown woman (‘DB27’, in police parlance) is buried in a pauper’s grave.  Fished from the Thames some months earlier, she has remained unidentified.  No one has come forward to claim her.  The scene is Dickensian, yet this is twenty-first-century London – seething, stressful, magnetic, and everlastingly mysterious.

From this dramatic opening (based on a real-life anonymous drowning), Orange Prize winner Linda Grant has spun a story at once panoramic and intimate, and one full of atmosphere.  A web of conscious and unconscious interconnections, layered like the often invisible levels of the city’s transport system, links the dead woman with a cross-section of London’s inhabitants.  In particular, Chrissie, a young and reckless hospital nurse, who happens to go missing briefly on the same night as DB27; Alan, a film-maker, who makes a TV documentary about them; and Pete, the river-haunting policeman who tries to solve the case.

Building on the private lives of these imaginary characters, Grant fills their neighbourhoods with a recognizable cast of polyglot supporting characters, many of whom have the mixed backgrounds now seen with such suspicion by British xenophobes. Then, having lulled the reader with warm-hearted realism, humour and occasional flights of fancy, she shifts the tone to something darker, a world in which deportation trains speed through the English countryside towards prison ships in the Thames estuary.  There is even a reminder that London itself could drown.

The mixture of tones is unsettling, as are the sharply observed aspirations of Grant’s Londoners.  A digitally savvy young man disfigured in a racially motivated acid attack commissions a golden mask and, for a while, becomes a hero; a schoolgirl narrowly escapes drowning by crazy twin sisters stuck in the past; a retired Persian merchant dreams of his days in the bazaar.  The randomness of life’s accidents is forcefully highlighted by the individual efforts and sensibilities she so carefully describes.

As ever, from this writer, contemporary life is seen through personal histories and habits.  Alongside her disquieting reminders of surveillance, terrorism and climate change, Grant shows her characters making the best of a city – and a country – bracing itself for the future.

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