De­but novel probes race in 1950s Lon­don

De­but novel garn­ers praise for evok­ing a time and place of racism

Calgary Herald - - FRONT PAGE - JAMIE PORT­MAN

This Lovely City Louise Hare


Bri­tish crit­ics have la­belled Louise Hare’s new novel, This Lovely City, the big­gest fic­tional de­but of the year.

Her Cana­dian pub­lisher, Anansi, also has high hopes for this com­pelling love story set against a back­ground of ex­plo­sive racial ten­sions in 1950s Lon­don.

So how is the book’s 39-year-old au­thor deal­ing with all the at­ten­tion?

Well, it seems she wor­ries about get­ting her day job back once the pan­demic is over — this de­spite the se­cu­rity of a six-fig­ure deal with her Bri­tish pub­lisher.

“Nor­mally I work in a travel agency,” she says. “So when I come back, I hope I still have a job.”

When she muses about com­ing back, she’s talk­ing about emerg­ing from lock­down. On the pos­i­tive side, how­ever, the lock­down has yielded one bonus — lots of time to work on her next book.

“I’ve be­come a full-time writer,” she says proudly from her Lon­don home. “Dur­ing the day I can sit at my desk and write. And I’ve been tak­ing up knit­ting again — that’s been quite nice!”

Hare seems to be scru­ti­niz­ing her bur­geon­ing lit­er­ary suc­cess from the mea­sured dis­tance of iso­la­tion.

Of course, she’s ex­cited about the re­cep­tion ac­corded This Lovely City, an un­usual mur­der mys­tery set in a time of grow­ing black im­mi­gra­tion from the Caribbean colonies. Bri­tain’s Guardian news­pa­per found it “hard to re­sist … a poignant tale of young love and shame­ful prej­u­dice with a twist­ing mys­tery, all em­bed­ded in a his­tor­i­cal mo­ment with keen con­tem­po­rary res­o­nance.”

But cau­tion seems in­te­gral to Hare’s nature. In­deed, she fig­ures it was by chance that the book hap­pened at all.

When she was work­ing on her mas­ter’s de­gree in cre­ative writ­ing at the Univer­sity of Lon­don, she was given a week’s no­tice to pro­duce a short story. In re­sponse, she latched onto a re­cent ex­pe­ri­ence ex­plor­ing Lon­don’s un­der­ground sys­tem and vis­it­ing the tun­nels where West In­dian im­mi­grants were first de­tained on their ar­rival in Eng­land more than 70 years ago. For Hare — her­self a mixed-race child brought up by white adop­tive par­ents — the ex­pe­ri­ence struck a nerve.

“I was wan­der­ing through these vast tun­nels,” she says. “It was a sort of op­pres­sive en­vi­ron­ment — you could hear the trains in the back­ground. I was imag­in­ing what it would feel like if you were this young man start­ing to re­gret his de­ci­sion to come here ….”

That’s how Lawrie, one of the novel’s main play­ers, was born — as a char­ac­ter in a writ­ing as­sign­ment. The ver­dict of Hare’s class­mates was im­me­di­ate when they were ex­posed to the story: What hap­pens next?

“That re­sponse was kind of a happy ac­ci­dent,” Hare says now. The short story es­sen­tially be­came part of an early chap­ter in the book, and Lawrie started as­sum­ing a more de­tailed iden­tity as a charm­ing, well-brought-up Ja­maican youth cop­ing with the shock of ar­rival and early glim­mers of prej­u­dice.

We see him putting down roots in the Brix­ton area of South Lon­don, work­ing as a postal worker by day and play­ing clar­inet in var­i­ous clubs at night. “I gave him a clar­inet to play be­cause I play clar­inet a bit my­self,” Hare says with a gig­gle. “He came to life very quickly.”

Lawrie lives in a room­ing house run by the moth­erly Mrs. Ri­ley, and he’s grad­u­ally build­ing a life de­spite lo­cal un­rest over the in­flux of im­mi­grants from the West Indies. Best of all he’s falling in love with Evie, the girl next door.

Evie, the daugh­ter of an un­wed white mother and a Black fa­ther, had ex­isted in a notebook long be­fore Hare started the novel. But now, be­cause she needed to bring in other im­por­tant char­ac­ters, she thought of Evie.

Hare grew up in the north of Eng­land, in the small Cheshire town of War­ring­ton “where they didn’t have many black peo­ple. I grew up look­ing like the odd girl out. I wanted some­body with some of my own ex­pe­ri­ences in the story.”

Lawrie and Evie are a cou­ple to root for as they be­come en­snared in a cli­mate of prej­u­dice and fear trig­gered by Lawrie’s dis­cov­ery of the dead body of an in­fant in a pond on Clapham Com­mon. Be­cause he is a Black im­mi­grant, he be­comes the prin­ci­pal sus­pect in a mur­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion led by a racist po­lice sergeant who will seem­ingly stop at noth­ing to build a case.

Hare has won praise for the novel’s evo­ca­tion of time and place and for its richly de­tailed por­trait of a community seething with un­rest — a community in which Molo­tov cock­tails are sent smash­ing through the win­dows of Black homes. But she was ini­tially sur­prised to be clas­si­fied as a crime nov­el­ist.

“I was sim­ply writ­ing about the im­pact of the body’s dis­cov­ery on a community,” she says. She now un­der­stands how the crime genre can serve as a por­tal for ex­am­in­ing a par­tic­u­lar so­ci­ety at a par­tic­u­lar time. “I think peo­ple are a bit snob­bish about crime fic­tion — as though you’re sup­posed to stay in your box or in your genre — but we do have ‘lit­er­ary’ crime nov­els.”

Hare’s book comes in the wake of a ma­jor Bri­tish gov­ern­ment scan­dal over the il­le­gal de­ten­tion and de­por­ta­tion of West In­dian mi­grants decades af­ter they first set­tled in what they saw then as the “mother coun­try.” They were mem­bers of the Win­drush gen­er­a­tion, named af­ter the ves­sel that first brought them in Eng­land in 1948 — the same year that Lawrie makes his ar­rival in the novel.

Hare says she re­ally wasn’t think­ing about the scan­dal while writ­ing the novel — “but it has had an im­pact on the book’s re­cep­tion. But I hope more than any­thing else that This Lovely City is a good read. I hope it will help make peo­ple think about how to treat oth­ers and about how com­mu­ni­ties form.”

Racial is­sues also play a role in her up­com­ing novel — but she con­fesses that this one is firmly in the mys­tery genre and will hope­fully evoke the world of Agatha Christie.

It’s set on the leg­endary ocean liner the Queen Mary on a voy­age from Southamp­ton to New York. “It was a fun book to write. It has race in it, but there are still peo­ple be­ing mur­dered and my main char­ac­ter is try­ing to fig­ure out who the mur­derer is.”

I hope more than any­thing else that This Lovely City is a good read. I hope it will help make peo­ple think about how to treat oth­ers and about how com­mu­ni­ties form.

Au­thor Louise Hare


Au­thor Louise Hare’s de­but novel, This Lovely City, started as a short story she wrote as part of her mas­ter’s de­gree in cre­ative writ­ing.

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