London Lies Beneath by Stella Duffy – 2016

london-lies-beliefA tale of London – not the London of commerce, science and suffragettes but that of the slums of Walworth with its overcrowding, costermongers and kids scrounging through the mud of the Thames for the odd useful find; the “Real London, the London that is beneath”.  It is also a London of superstition and charms, arriving with migrants from other countries and from rural Britain; a muddy taniwha even raises its lonely head.  The book is lyrical and flows along like the tides of the Thames and the ebbing and flowing of human populations.  Although swirling into focus from when the land was a boggy marsh and spinning out to the present, London lies beneath is set in 1912 and tells the story of an historical disaster.  The many narratives we read revolve around the families of three 12-year-old friends: Tom, Itzhak and Jimmy.  The boys skive off whenever they can and move between their London and glimpses of a far different life.  The only outside view is that of Edward Lovett, an accountant in the city leading a solitary life after his wife has left him with two sons, and whose passion is the collection of the charms and amulets he buys from the barrow markets.  The perspectives are broad but the main focus is that of the women: Tom’s mum Ida who sells charms and potions from her barrow; Itzhak’s mum Mimi who caters for her husband, three sons and two borders, and Jimmy’s mum Rose, who has the added burden/gift of her dying mother Emily in the house.  There is a fantasy feel to the novel – the boys are all the treasures of their parents and are honourable lads, almost all of the characters are good hard working souls with hearts of gold, and underneath the bluster and gruffness all the blokes are solid as – they are too busy to be political but Ida’s husband Bill still thinks his wife should be allowed to vote.  The memorial erected to the victims of the Leysdown disaster (if you don’t know the story read the book) was stolen in the 1960s, so Duffy has written her own memorial – not only to the victims but to the urban poor, whose fate is inexorable no matter how many charms they pretend to believe in.  I found it a moving read.

 

 

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