Book Review: London Gothic

Nicholas Royle has been described by a Sunday Times reviewer as a ‘craftsman of disquiet’. London Gothic, his latest short story collection, provides a fine example of why he deserves such praise. Across fifteen deliciously disturbing tales, written between 2000 and the present day, he offers glimpses of contemporary London as seen through the lenses of artists – and other residents the aspiring and successful brush up against. Settings include: flats carved from once spacious houses, hipster style art galleries, and a ‘country house’ hotel. Alongside an undercurrent of the macabre there is much humour. Royle is not afraid to poke fun at his peers and those they may venerate.

The collection opens with Welcome, an apparently jolly letter to new home owners that quickly sets the scene for the author’s ability to summon unease.

There follow a number of stories that explore how little can be known of other’s reasoning – the perturbing methods they employ to solve troubling issues.

The Neighbours tells of a burgeoning relationship that stalls when the man feels shadowed by another couple paying too close attention. Much is inferred but the reader is trusted to reach their own conclusion.

This lack of spoon-feeding is a strength in these tales. Undertows pervade with questions hanging over what is real and what a product of a character’s history, personality and concerns.

The Old Bakery is something rather different, and a strong addition. In it, a sub-editor is working on a piece commissioned for a Sunday Supplement in which a wealthy couple are showing the space they have created from the titular building. The tone of the interview is faux-humble, exacerbated by the writer’s collusion and sycophancy. It is a wonderful take-down of smug artistes, nepotism, and the jealousy of those not included within inner circles.

Another story that strays from the themes of hauntings, doppelgängers and murder is Constraints. It harnesses a form that is somewhat experimental yet has been made to work.

Lesser known histories of the city add to the colour and flavour of many of the tales. Buildings referenced may or may not exist in real life but are still familiar. Changes have been made over time to structure and interior but they retain glimpses of what they once were. Incomers will try to cash in on the nostalgia this generates.

The author frequently plays with his reader, most obviously in the story, London. This includes a description that appeared to meander into rather boring detail, followed by a rejoinder for the inevitable lapse in attention.

“Go ahead. Skim. I’m just telling you what I saw. It might be important. It might not.”

Suitably chastised, I reread the paragraph. I will not spoil by saying if this were necessary.

Several stories contain elements that could be regarded as self-referential, challenging the reader to admit to a conceit that they believe they might know something of the author. I enjoyed the playfulness with which these were introduced.

London plays with many aspects of mise en abyme. The tale told is not always straightforward but provides much to reflect on.

The collection concludes with The Vote. Set in a hotel it is an allegory for Brexit but avoiding the usual bile and blame. Characters were pigeon-holed by newspapers. The Times man may have been ‘a former Guardian reader’ who ‘tired of that paper’s obsession with certain issues’. He can socialise with the Telegraph man, if only for their brief stay in this shifting space.

“The Times man was still in the game, still a player, a stakeholder. But he knew that he and the Telegraph man were basically from the same stock. They could get on. Their wives could get on. This was how the country worked.”

Mostly though the stories in this collection avoid any hint of politics, reflecting more on class and culture – and the chasms these create. They offer up a dark underbelly lurking within everyday situations. Fabulous, at times chilling, storytelling to curl up with as the evenings draw in.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Cōnfingō.

Book Review: My Second Home

My Second Home, by Dave Haslam, is the fourth book in the author’s Art Decades series. These beautifully produced mini books explore ‘a variety of subjects rooted in cities’. The latest work focuses on a holiday Sylvia Plath took in Paris over the Easter period in 1956. Her visit was to prove pivotal.

As someone who has visited Paris on several occasions, I have never understood its appeal. Sylvia Plath adored the city and would have liked to live there. The explanation given for her desire to make it ‘her second home’ provided the most convincing reasons I have encountered as to why the place may be regarded fondly.

Sylvia was born and raised in America but, by the mid 1950s, was on a Fulbright scholarship at Cambridge in England. She does not appear to have enjoyed her time there, struggling to make female friends.

Apparently, a young woman who wears bright red lipstick and dyes her hair blonde can’t possibly be taken seriously as a person, let alone a poet.”

Sylvia had been dating Richard Sassoon for some time. Having spent Christmas 1955 with him in Paris – her first visit to the city – he told her they were finished and she was not to contact him again. Her Easter trip was an attempt to see him, to get back together.

Good girls were expected to be decorous, aspiring to marriage and babies. Paris in the 1950s was a  place of ‘expatriates, gay bars, desire, faithlessness and illicit liasons.’ Most visitors experienced only the bourgeois side, never travelling to working-class neighbourhoods. Sylvia was entranced by the literary history – along with the art, theatre and her walks by the Seine. Her mood at the time was crashing between euphoria and despair.

A month before this second trip to Paris, Sylvia had met Ted Hughes for the first time – at a launch party for a new poetry magazine. After her death he would write of her love for the city, which they visited together following their marriage. He derided her ‘manic enthusiasm’ – so different from his more dour perspective.

“He suggests she perceived a fantasy Paris. He lists the sources which had created her sense of the city, including writers in the interwar years like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. Her Paris, he suggests, was an aesthetic rather than a realistic version.”

From journals and letters written by Sylvia at the time, the author pieces together how she spent each day of her vacation, along with her fluctuating state of mind. Using what is now known about her life and work – before and after Paris 1956 – it may be deduced the influence this trip had on what came next.

“Fate, decisions, a conversation with a stranger, a moment of irresponsibility, someone hearing your faint cry. And opportunities, choices”

The writing is spare yet compelling, a potted biography of a now widely revered young woman that gets under her skin. Sylvia’s life has become legend with Ted Hughes cast as the villain. In this short book the reader may view how she embraced a beloved city and the prospect of freedom it granted. Hers is never, it seems, a truly happy story, but there are moments of sunshine that she pounced on with an exuberance her husband would begrudge and disdain.

A short read but one that deserves to be savoured and will satisfyingly linger. Recommended for anyone with an interest in Sylvia Plath and the times in which she lived.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Cōnfingō.