This Lovely City (2020) – Louise Hare

Title:This Lovely City
Author:Louise Hare
Date published:2020
Publisher:HQ/Harper Collins/Jonathan Ball Publishers
Star Rating:⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer:This copy was kindly sent to me by Jonathan Ball Publishers in exchange for an honest review

It’s 1948 and the city of London is reeling from World War Two, and looking a little worse for wear. Young men from all over the Caribbean islands have been arriving on ships to England to seek their fortune amidst a population of prejudice and distrust. In the booming night life that is helping awaken the war-torn city, Lawrence ‘Laurie’ Matthew has joined a jazz band (in which he plays the clarinet) entertaining people in the more liberal Soho. During his early days of being integrated and searching for a job he meets Evelyn ‘Evie’ Coleridge who can relate to being an outsider as she is of mixed race heritage. Evie’s mother, Agnes brought up Evie all on her own and is used to being ostracized for having a daughter of ‘color’. Both mother and daughter have spent a rather cloistered and quiet life keeping to themselves and maintaining almost anonymity among their white British neighbors.

Flash forward to the year 1950 and Evie and Laurie are very much in love and living next door to one another. Laurie now has a job as a postman during the day, and performs with his band at night. Of course this does not mean that things are any easier for those that crossed the oceans to seek a new life as Laurie will soon discover. His romance with Evie has blossomed and they are planning to be married one day much to Agnes Coleridge’s delight as she believes this is the best way for her daughter to finally be accepted in [a] society. Evie who went to secretarial school now has a successful job, and spends her spare time with her best friend Delia and watching Laurie perform with his band in the evenings. Despite the heaviness in the air and her somewhat mundane life Evie is happy.

One sunny day Laurie is cycling across Clapham Common and discovers a deceased child hidden near a pond. The police immediately take Laurie into custody, and the coincidence of him being in the wrong place at the wrong time is not nearly as damning as the color of his skin. Very soon the entire neighborhood and eventually all of London and the surrounding villages and towns are in an uproar. All the Jamaicans in the neighborhood are being questioned and a sense of foreboding, and in essence the dark side of London (and society in general) begins to filter though every aspect of life in a city of mistrust and fear.

The novel switches perspectives between Laurie and Evie, also giving the reader a foray into their childhoods and the secrets that both of them have been keeping from one another. In many ways Hare’s novel is not just a slice of 1950’s London life, but also a commentary on sexism and overt racism. Hare explores hypocrisy through the different character’s indiscretions and unique experiences through the years, and the tragic story of a baby the newspapers have posthumously nicknamed “Ophelia” that becomes a catalyst for all the issues that have remained hidden in the shadows ever since the first ships arrived carrying foreigners to Britain.

Louise Hare’s novel seems rather subtle in its approach to the serious issues depicted, and yet if you listen carefully and you focus a little longer on all the characters a pattern of perpetual intolerance begins to form. Evie and Laurie’s love affair is not the only focal point, and soon a string of secrets and lies begin to erupt as their world slowly unravels. Evie’s mother’s relationship with her own family reminds us how long generations have been carrying the very same social issues, and Laurie’s friend Aston has to hide the fact that he is in a relationship with a French woman simply because he is Jamaican. In This Lovely City racial tensions and old fashioned values almost obliterate the cheerful jazz emanating from dark nightclubs where black and white mingle in the thrill of smoke and the dawn of an inevitable new era of British life.

Hare’s writing is addictive and effortless, and even though I would have preferred more forays into the jazz scene, it surprised me with its gentle nod towards a world that has not changed very much at all. With an unexpected ending and a few tragedies along the way, This Lovely City is not a light read but it is heart-warming and heartbreaking and filled with a multitude of characters whose indelible spirit will keep you turning the pages frantically right up until the dramatic end.

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