I had seen a few reviews of Sam Selvon’s book ‘The Lonely Londoners’ around the blogosphere before it was chosen by Linda for the latest discussion at The Riverside Readers book group. I had always thought it sounded like it would be interesting and quite different, plus the fact that as I live in London I do love books on the city. Yet I don’t think without book group I would have actually ended up with a copy, even despite the fact it’s a Penguin Modern Classic and has a lovely cover, or is that me showing myself in an all too materialistic light? Come on these additional things do matter even if we tell ourselves they don’t.
‘The Lonely Londoners’ is going to be quite a hard book for me to review in part because I am still not 100% sure how I feel about it and also because its written in such an unusual way. Let’s kick of with the premise and I say premise because really ‘The Lonely Londoners’ doesn’t have so much of a plot.
As ‘The Lonely Londoners’ opens we meet Moses Aloetta who is on his way to meeting a group of people who have newly arrived in the city from the West Indies. Moses having lived in London for quite some time is an initially rather begrudging welcoming committee. This is the 1950s a period after the war when many people from many countries came to the UK to find their fortune. While a small amount of them did (and these were very few and far between) most people however ended up working for anything they could get and Moses in his heart of heart is homesick. He is there to meet Henry ‘Sir Galahad’ Oliver and through these two characters and people they know we get snippets of peoples lives.
Selvon does something for me with this book which I both loved and found rather difficult all at once and I am not talking about the fact its written in a creolized voice, that actually helped the book come more alive for me. No, the difficult things is there is no exact narrative be it first person, second or third. It flits from scene to scene and person to person which whilst creating an incredible sense of London and its atmosphere at the time is actually rather confusing and disorientating. I couldn’t get a grip on the characters emotionally even though characters such as the gutsy Tanty (who is one of the only women in the book and doesn’t get mentioned much, the book to me really lost something on not having one main female voice or outlook) and Moses himself made the book really interesting in parts. I never became attached to any of them though and so, and this might make me sound callous, I ended up not caring. I also hated the misogynistic attitude of some of the characters like Cap, who seemed to somehow sleep with every woman be they black or white and treat them like garbage.
However I don’t believe characters you don’t like should put you off a book and it was more the alienating movement from person to person. I do have to reiterate that I have read few books that evoke London and hardly any which give such a sense of time and place so simply – no over description at all. This I think really saved the book for me. Selvon builds the city at that time in such a way that it makes the book worth the read for that alone. He also writes a marvellous section of summertime London when the smog lifts in a stream of conscious one sentence long over five pages which isn’t hard to read which he should be highly commended for. There is no question he is a great writer I just wish I had felt a little more involved rather than at a distance in a whirl of people and thoughts. Maybe that’s the intention though?
A book that will: evoke London in the 1950’s effortlessly and provide a glimpse of how it feels to be a stranger in a land you believe is filled with hope and doesn’t live up to your expectation (a bit like my relationship with the book weirdly). In terms of involvement in the story this book would get a 5/10 however in terms of original writing style and such evocative time and place it would get an 8/10. So let’s settle on a 6.5/10 shall we.
Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners;
Small Island by Andrea Levy – The whole way through I kept thinking of this book, which is one of my favourites and I loved a lot more, and wanting to go back and read it. Though not in the exact same time it’s not far off and sees the arrival of Jamaicans to London in search of new lives.
Weirdly I would like to follow Moses in the follow up novel ‘Moses Ascending’ and wonder if that book does have more of an emotional tie to it. Not even emotional actually just some kind of attachment. Has anyone read it? Has anyone read ‘The Lonely Londoners’? Which books have you read that evoke a specific time and place you actually feel you could have been there?