Compiled by Beth Townsend
Novels set in places I recognise are a special kind of thing. There is nothing I enjoy more than reading about a place and going, hang on, I’ve been there and this is never truer than when it’s local – in and around Liverpool, where I’ve spent most of my life.
My first conscious experience of Liverpool in literature was thanks to Brian Patten. In primary school I adored and treasured my copy of Gargling with Jelly and whilst I enjoyed reading it, it came to life when I heard one of the poems being read aloud, accent and all, by Patten himself. There began my love for local writing, reading things that I felt physically connected to and it has only grown since.
Anyway, here’s a chance to take a look at some of the finest novels (I think) that Liverpool has produced. My reading of the bigger names of the Liverpool literary canon (Beryl Bainbridge / Helen Forrester / Mauren Lee) is non-existent so my recommendations are mainly contemporary.
In My Liverpool Home
Local novelists who make Liverpool the base for their plot always have a special place in my heart and here are just three worth considering:
This is a novel I expected to be too frothy, too soft for me to enjoy but I was pleasantly surprised. In the present day we have Holly heading back to Liverpool after growing up in London, on a quest to find her birth mother, and in the early 1980s we have 15-year old Darren struggling with himself, his mother and his family circumstances, just as the Toxteth Riots explode around him. There’s a cameo from Liverpool legend April Ashley, who actually plays a pivotal role in the novel, and Harvey absolutely captures the spirit of the city, from both the home-grown and outsider point of view.
Gritty and subversive, Helen Walsh’s work isn’t always as highly appreciated as it should be and Brass is where it all began, with teen Millie O’Reilly haring her way through the underbelly of the city, looking for a way out. Walsh’s use of local dialogue and her ability to turn the city into a core character in the novel are what make it so memorable, and so Liverpool. It’s brash and crude and there is plenty of drug-taking and graphic sex, but it fits with the character and world Walsh has created.
Fluently Scouse and darkly comic, Griffiths gives us the darker, grittier side of Liverpool life, much like Walsh in Kelly + Victor. He tells the mirror narrative of Kelly and Victor, mapping their intense love story which lasts just two weeks. Griffiths’ dialogue is what makes this novel as he captures the voices of his characters perfectly. A lot of the novel takes place in the Magnet, a city centre pub/bar with a fascinating history and one which, if you fall for Kelly + Victor, you could choose to visit.
There are some authors I simply have to mention, despite them not writing about the city because they are amongst my favourites and they’re close enough. The first is Willy Russell, whose plays are more renowned than his fiction and the second is Carys Bray, as A Song for Issy Bradley is so fantastically written and has some breath-taking descriptions of the Mersey coast which are not to be missed.
Not set in Liverpool but with all the Scouse humour and spirit of its author, The Wrong Boy is in my top five all-time favourite novels and is the story of Raymond Marks, who writes letters to Morrissey, telling his slightly unconventional childhood, and the incident which changed his life for the worse, and the fantastic cast of characters around him, from his Gran who truly the star of the novel for me, to The Girl with the Chestnut Eyes. The hilarious voice that Russell creates for Raymond can’t be missed, as he is sent from his home in Failsworth to ‘Gulag Grimsby’.
Huge critical acclaim hit this novel and whilst I only listened to it as an audiobook recently, I could tell why, but more than this, A Song for Issy Bradley makes me think of home. A lot of the novel is based in Southport but there are hints of Liverpool, snapshots of the city which are perfectly captured, and the unusual plot just adds to the novel’s brilliance. Bray tells the story with empathy and it is definitely a Merseyside novel (if not strictly a Liverpool novel) in my mind.
Liverpool Wish List
There are plenty of Liverpool authors I haven’t read and wish that I had, some of them making my reading wishlist. I am keen to get hold of a copy of Twopence to Cross the Mersey by Helen Forrester, for example, as I have been urged time and again to give it a go and I’m sure it is worth the hype, and I also really want to read Alice and the Fly by James Rice, one of Merseyside’s newest literary talents (reviewed here).
There are others I can appreciate for what they’ve achieved, such as Brian Jacques and Clive Barker, but they probably won’t be making it onto my reading list any time soon.