Charles Dickens prefigured the modern urbanite’s obsession with the living conditions of his neighbour and the busybody enthusiasm to look through the keyhole. He was also adept at the street scene, of guiding readers down alleys and up staircases into his characters’ lives.
Fast forward to today and there are many new urban novels, mostly set in London, where bricks and mortar are brought to an unsettling kind of life and where property envy is rife. After all, houses have become so valuable in the capital, so important to the livelihood and self-worth of their owners, so why not make homes in fiction “central actors in their own right”, as they are in John Lanchester’s Capital?
This urban epic, along with Zadie Smith’s NW, is one of the most celebrated London novels in recent years. Both are full of astutely observed characters on different rungs of the social ladder of contemporary London, whose lives collide in a series of tense incidents. Yet, for me at least, the most memorable characters in either book aren’t people but the flats, houses and streets where the protagonists grow up.
Both are set in and around the kind of mixed London suburbs where deprivation bangs up against wealth. NW follows two friends who met as four-year-olds but have grown apart by adulthood. “Leah passes the old estate every day on the walk to the corner shop . . . Nat lives just far enough to avoid it. Anyway, all meetings happen here, at Nat’s house, because why wouldn’t they? Look at this beautiful house!”
Capital focuses almost entirely on the comings and goings on Pepys Road, where the house-proud inhabitants start receiving postcards of their properties, bearing the message: “We Want What You Have”.
At the most obvious level, this recent trend to re-elevate the role of property in fiction follows the fallout from the 2008 crash, showing how the easy-money era affected not just greedy property speculators but the society that fattened around them.
I moved to southeast London nearly three years ago. Sometimes I find myself speculating, as I walk along a street, on the character and pursuits of the people who inhabit it. I mostly do this on tree-lined Camberwell Grove, admiring the Georgian and Regency homes that are just a few roads away from my flat.
With its immaculately proportioned houses that can sell upwards of £2m, the street is something of an oddity – broad and leafy in the seething inner city. The houses here are either artfully ramshackle or gently modern – and they might all have been purpose-built to induce property envy in passers-by like me.
I should know better, of course. For twenty-something writers such as Ned Beauman and Zoe Pilger – “generation rent”, who have been priced out of the market – owning property signals something sinister; in their books, property owners are the new bad guys.
Camberwell Grove makes an appearance in Beauman’s 2014 novel Glow. Raf, the protagonist, lives in a pokey flat above a dentist’s surgery and can only dream of living on Camberwell Grove. This street is, instead, home to one of the book’s biggest villains, the chief executive of a corrupt mining company involved in spreading a new recreational drug.
“With the sycamores leaning protectively over the narrow roadbed and the semi-detached houses set back at haughty remove from the pavement,” says the narrator, “it’s impossible to imagine any sort of fuss or flurry ever being permitted here, which makes it an example of a paradox Raf has noticed . . . the quieter and more secluded the street, the more likely its architects are to have topologised the zone between the kerb and the homes on either side with such a pedantic and well-proportioned bagatelle of gates . . . that you might have guessed they were expecting twice-daily inundations of people, livestock, ball bearings, ginger syrup, or some other rushing matter”.
In Pilger’s Eat My Heart Out, also published in 2014, the protagonist is a 23-year-old living in a squalid flat-share. She engineers a move to a beautiful house on Camden Square with an indoor pool and all the mod-cons. Despite the splendour, things turn nasty and she’s imprisoned by the owner of the property (the subtext: see, they’re all swines!).
Of course, there are authorial hints of satire, and even disapproval, but it’s hard to read about the high-end property in Glow and Eat My Heart Out without feeling a whiff of jealousy and a speeding heart rate. Maybe all my generation are like the “voyeurs at a peep-show” in Eat My Heart Out, who can’t ignore the “sumptuous images of semi-detached houses in the estate agent’s window.” Or maybe sometimes we all can’t help feeling like one of the characters in Glow, who says, incredulously, “Have you seen all those Georgian mansions at the south end of Camberwell Grove?”
John Sunyer is a commissioning editor on House & Home. Happy 60th David Tang, who returns next week