Reviewed by Victoria
The narration of Elizabeth Day’s third novel is woven together from four different perspectives that, when we are first introduced to them, seem utterly disparate. What do these four characters have in common, we wonder, and how will their paths interact in the great urban sprawl of London?
Howard Pink is a self-made millionaire, a man who has left behind his impoverished Jewish upbringing to become the owner of a popular chain of fashion boutiques. When we first meet him he’s a sort of Alan Sugarish parody, rough around the edges despite his fortune, married to a brassy and unaffectionate second wife, living in a house that doesn’t really suit him and nursing a wretched tragedy. His only daughter, Ada, was a troubled teen who walked out of her university hostel one evening never to return. What happened has never been determined, and the uncertainty has driven him into a series of decisions in his personal life that have been motivated by the underlying insecurity brought to the surface.
He needed [second wife Claudia’s] brittleness, her dead-eyed ambition, her naked desire for status and wealth, as an affirmation of what he had always suspected of himself; that he was worth no more, that if you drew back the curtain there was nothing there but a small boy, threading a needle, afraid of being found out.
The story opens with Howard committing a foolish – but he thinks acceptable – indiscretion with the chambermaid in his hotel. Beatrice Kizza is a Ugandan asylum seeker, forced to leave her homeland and the woman she loves because homosexuality is a criminal offence there. Once in London, Beatrice has fallen into an existential badland composed of thankless jobs, disgusting housing, loneliness, poverty and the grinding attrition of her sense of self-worth. Howard’s misdemeanour is the last straw, but tackling the problems of immigration have given Beatrice some surprising strength. ‘The best bulwark against desperation, Beatrice has discovered, is having something to rail against.’ And so she decides to stand up for herself and to approach Howard Pink, with her own understanding of what justice might mean for her.
Meanwhile, Esme Reade is a young journalist with the Sunday Tribune, attempting to make her way in the often sordid world of newspapers. She has a crush on her older boss that she can’t make sense of herself, and is trying to separate from a somewhat clinging mother who isn’t about to let her go without a burden of guilt. When Esme’s paper prints an out-of-date picture of Howard Pink that he objects to, Esme is sent as a palliative, told to invite him out to lunch to smooth things over.
And in a different part of London altogether, Carol Hetherington mourns the recent loss of her beloved husband, Derek. Her days pass without much to distinguish them, except the number of silly television programmes she allows herself to be hypnotised by in the mornings. Her daughter Vanessa is worried about her, and her grandson Archie worries too much about everyone in his small family. When her next door neighbour Alan asks her to water his plants while he’s away on holiday, she has no idea how much disruption this innocent activity will cause.
Paradise City is as much a four-handed study in character as anything else; Day lavishes care and attentive observation on the lives of her protagonists, drawing us deeply into their individual worlds and applying detail with a generous hand. Just occasionally, less detail would work as well, though the writing is consistently strong and always a pleasure. There are some lovely moments of description: ‘Low grey clouds are veiling the sun like cataracts’, and the image of Carol’s grandson hugging his terminally ill grandfather:
Looking at them, Carol was struck by their completeness: just the two of them, curved into each other, finding each other’s gaps and filling them. She wanted to cry, not from happiness or sadness, but from something in between the two that she couldn’t define.
The story that gradually emerges from these vivid portraits is actually rather clever and unexpected and it uses the characters brilliantly. The author is a journalist for a Sunday paper, so it’s to be expected that her depiction of Esme Read feels completely convincing. But Beatrice Kizzer, the asylum seeker, is just as tenderly drawn and a heroic figure on a small scale, which is the only scale that would be plausible. Even Howard Pink, who fears he is a cliché, undergoes a transformative journey through the narrative, emerging a wiser, better man.
A friend of mine once insightfully said that she only really liked books in which the author clearly loved the characters s/he had created. In which case, she ought to really enjoy this novel. The tenderness with which Day puts her characters together and tends to their conjoined fates suffuses the story, and the ending surprised me with its poignant, unpredictable resolutions for all concerned. Funny, charming and sometimes startling, this is a warm-hearted treat of a novel.
Elizabeth Day, Paradise City (Bloomsbury: London, 2015). 978-1408854990, 368pp., hardback.