This Lovely City is the latest novel to highlight the experiences of the Windrush generation in London. Part-love story, part-mystery, Louise Hare’s stunning historical debut is undoubtedly one of my must-read books of 2020.
Set in 1950, This Lovely City is centred around a young couple in post-Windrush London, Lawrie Matthews and Evie Coleridge. Lawrie arrived in London from Jamaica in June 1948. He was one of the hundreds of West Indian passengers on board the famous Empire Windrush. One morning, Lawrie makes a heart-stopping discovery which turns his life upside down, and he soon finds himself accused of a terrible crime.
Hare does many things with this book and she does them well, with incredibly evocative writing. Written in the third person, the novel begins in 1950, and occasionally takes us back to 1948, the year of Lawrie’s arrival to Britain.
“Anyway, how could she stay away? She didn’t know anybody who looked like her and now here were a whole group of people whose skin was even darker than hers. An entire ship full of them!”
Evie watching the new West Indian arrivals exiting the Empire Windrush.
Lawrie is doing the best he can with what he has. He’s a postman by day and jazz musician by night, playing various clubs around London with his band. He’s dedicated to his music and his girlfriend. Evie is a mixed-race, or “coloured” teenager working as a secretary. She lives with her single white mother Agnes and has never met her black African father. Evie and Lawrie are a truly adorable couple. I became equally fond of them both and was rooting for them until the end.
We get to know Lawrie and Evie well while becoming familiar with some of the important people in their lives. Everyone in this novel feels vivid and real.
Evie is a wonderful character. One of my favourite things about the novel is the way Evie’s complicated relationship with her mother is portrayed. Agnes is something of an outcast in the community because she has a mixed-race child, and is also a fascinating character.
“His entire body was buzzing now with rage at the injustice. That some fella could start a fight and then call the police, knowing that his victim would be the one arrested. he’d been a fool to think things were looking up. Sonny was right; they weren’t and never would be welcome here. It didn’t matter what his passport said. A man with black skin could never be considered British.”
Hare captures racial tensions and white British hostility towards these new West Indian arrivals very well. All of the Caribbean characters feel authentic. They feel and sound like people who have just set foot on British soil for the very first time. Upon his arrival, Lawrie, like many of his fellow West Indians, was shocked by the unwelcoming attitudes of white British folks. This element of culture shock, the harsh and bitter reality of life as black people in the so-called motherland is a theme that runs through the novel.
The book explores the extent to which black people and blackness was, and is, constantly othered and pathologised. For example, Lawrie’s discovery leads to the local police assuming that he, a “darkie”, must be responsible for the tragic incident that occurred. Black people, black men especially, are criminalised, perceived as wild, animal-like, lacking self-control, sexually deviant etc by white Brits. These new arrivals from the Caribbean are trying to survive in and navigate an incredibly hostile and racist environment that constantly tells them they are not wanted there (despite being invited to come and help rebuild Britain after the war). Evie also feels like an outsider, like she doesn’t fully belong, due to her mixed heritage.
Hare addresses issues of race, identity and belonging with empathy and compassion. However, she doesn’t sugarcoat how difficult life was for West Indian immigrants in post-War Britain. This Lovely City is well-paced and keeps readers guessing until the end. I couldn’t put it down even when I tried to. It’s a novel full of hope that breaks your heart and lifts it in equal measure. This Lovely City reminds us of the complexity of humankind and shows what some people are willing to do for those they love.
My rating: 9/10
A big thank you to NetGalley and HQ / HarperCollins for providing me with an advance digital copy in exchange for an honest review.
Further reading: Top 10 books about the Windrush generation | Louise Hare