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Review: This Lovely City, by Louise Hare
Anansi, 2020. 384 pp. $18

Lawrence (Lawrie) Mathews, a young Jamaican whose brother died fighting with the RAF in World War II, has emigrated to London, believing the blandishments from the British government that he can make his fortune in the mother country. But he hasn’t reckoned on the racism, expressed in the most vicious, direct terms; or that most desirable material goods are still rationed in 1948; or that housing is in short supply, thanks largely to German bombs.

Nevertheless, by 1950, when the story begins, things are looking up. He plays clarinet with a jazz band, which he loves, and which brings in a little cash. As a day job, he delivers mail for the Post Office. And he’s found lodging with a kind, motherly woman who treats him with fond respect. Not just that: Lawrie digs the girl next door, who likes him back. What could go wrong?

Plenty. One day, while making a drop of black-market merchandise to help a friend (and make ends meet), he happens on a dead infant by a pond. Since the child is “coloured,” as the kindest word in common use puts it, an accusation against Lawrie fits all too neatly, especially since he can’t explain his presence at the pond without revealing he’s an accessory to illegal activity. But even a more legitimate excuse probably wouldn’t have helped Lawrie, for Detective Sergeant Rathbone hates Black people, immigrants, and most anyone else on two legs.

Worse, the case creates a sensation in the press, arousing white Londoners itching to blame outsiders for the hardships that haven’t eased much since V-E Day. Lawrie and his Jamaican friends must now watch themselves carefully on the street, while patronizing stores and—most especially—when the jazz band plays dance music for a hard-drinking crowd.

Nelson’s column, London, seen through the Great Smog, December 1952. The climatic disaster lasted five days and caused many thousands of deaths. (Courtesy N T Stobbs via Wikimedia Commons)

My favorite aspect of This Lovely City is the plot, which twists in unexpected ways, particularly in the final third. Both Lawrie and his girlfriend, Evie Coleridge, have secrets from the other. Evie also has a hard-hearted mother, an apt parallel to England. Mrs. Coleridge has suffered its whips and scorns herself, though that’s why—at least in part—she’s as tough as she is.

I also like how Hare re-creates postwar London, pinched and yearning to let loose, but also violently racist, in which what we would call micro-aggressions quickly flame into just plain aggression. The prose, though simple, occasionally rises to illumine emotional moments particular to that environment, as with this passage about Lawrie playing jazz before an audience:

The nerves would pass soon enough, but the moments before they started playing, before the music took over, always made him feel like one of the tigers at London Zoo. He’d gone there with Evie the previous autumn. She had leaned against the railing and stared in awe at the big cats, lounging lazily in their compound, but all he could think of was how sad they looked, those magnificent beasts now tamed and cowed by their conquerors. If anyone could understand the tigers it was him, trapped in a foreign land and reduced to parading himself before a paying audience. But then he’d raise his clarinet, the reed rough against his lips, and feel like a king.

I wish the characterizations worked with any consistency. Lawrie and Evie seem too good by half, and the terrible secrets they possess never credibly threaten their happiness. At times, quick resolutions—much like Lawrie merely lifting the clarinet to his lips, in the above passage—make me wonder whether Hare’s trying too hard to rescue her characters.

She also portrays Lawrie as a sexual innocent in ways I find hard to believe, particularly when a young woman invites him to take a bath at her house (in the days before he moves next door to Evie), and he has no idea she has plans other than cleanliness. At times too he seems generally clueless about his surroundings, as with his surprise that so much of London was bombed. Not much of a secret, that. What did he think his brother was doing in the RAF?

The two principals often have trouble locating their spines, to the extent that I lost patience with them and wondered what they saw in each other. Wouldn’t each lover seek out someone more forceful than themselves? They’re trying to be pleasant, sure, perhaps hiding behind that to avoid confrontations. Or maybe they confuse asking for what they want with meanness; it’s hard to tell. But whatever the explanation, I wanted more push from each of them, the lack of which might just be convenient to the plot.

As for the villains, the cops are faceless and horrid, without a single redeeming feature, including intelligence, so it’s a surprise to discover they actually know a thing or two. The most complex character in the book—perhaps the only one with sharp edges and kind impulses, both—is Mrs. Coleridge. She’s a piece of work, yet I understand her.

For all that, though, This Lovely City provides a glimpse of London as I’ve never read of it. Despite its flaws, the novel depicts the struggle to get by and dreams of a fuller life in real, day-to-day terms. That’s worth something.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.