Source: Review copy
Publication: 12th March 2020 from HQ
The drinks are flowing.
The music is playing.
But the party can’t last.
With the Blitz over and London reeling from war, jazz musician Lawrie Matthews has answered England’s call for help. Fresh off the Empire Windrush, he’s taken a tiny room in south London lodgings, and has fallen in love with the girl next door.
Touring Soho’s music halls by night, pacing the streets as a postman by day, Lawrie has poured his heart into his new home – and it’s alive with possibility. Until, one morning, he makes a terrible discovery.
As the local community rallies, fingers of blame are pointed at those who had recently been welcomed with open arms. And, before long, the newest arrivals become the prime suspects in a tragedy which threatens to tear the city apart.
‘Welcome home’ the newspaper headline said as Lawrie Matthews stepped off the Windrush at Tilbury on 22 June 1948. He was expecting the green and pleasant land that his mother had spoken of, but instead he found dirt, rubble and austerity and instead of the welcome he’d been promised, all around him was prejudice and suspicion.
All his life he’d been told that he was a British subject; his brother had died for this country but the reality was that this grey hostile country barely concealed its hostility towards Lawrie and his kind.
It was summer but Lawrie was still cold and he wasn’t expecting to find that he had nowhere to live and would be billeted in a tunnel under a tube station. Clutching his beloved rosewood clarinet, inherited from his father, Lawrie sets out to find lodgings, work and hopefully some gigs as a jobbing musician.
Louise Hare’s debut novel is a very timely reminder of what we asked the Windrush generation to go through in order to make their home in a country where they had already gained their citizenship. It is impossible to read this book without thinking about the ways in which our Government is still trying to disown these citizens and I felt shame and shock as I read Lawrie and Evie’s story.
This Lovely City is a beautiful tale of young love in a time of austerity and when racism was embedded in the mind-set of almost everyone Lawrie meets. He has to work harder, be earlier and keep the boss sweet with black market offerings in his job as a postie; yet he still feels like his livelihood dangles by a thread at the whim of his superior – rightly as it turns out.
Set in 1950, with flashbacks to two years previously when Lawrie arrived, this story is told in the voices of Lawrie and Evie, the young woman who lives next door and who becomes Lawrie’s love interest.
They are in Brixton where many of the Caribbean community settle. Lawrie eventually gets a job as a postman and supplements his income playing jazz in clubs, sometimes even in the music halls of central London, where a black jazz band is just about acceptable. Life is starting to become bearable for Lawrie and Hare’s book reflects Lawrie’s joy of playing jazz and drinking rum punch as the dancing takes off. His love for Evie Coleridge, the mixed race girl next door is wholehearted and there’s no question but that Evie reciprocates his love. So Lawrie can handle the endemic racism as long as he makes sure to steer clear of any trouble.
All that comes to an end one morning, when he steps in to help a distraught woman as he is cycling through Clapham Common. He finds the body of a dead baby in the pond and that baby is black. Lawrie immediately becomes the focus of a police investigation and what was a constant hum of low-level racism starts to ramp up as Londoners’ outrage starts to focus on the new residents in the city.
Lawrie becomes a murder suspect and his friends are also targeted as police question every black man in the area. Soon fights are breaking out as locals find that the baby’s death is a convenient excuse to try and hound the new black residents from their homes. Meanwhile, Evie’s mother is hiding a secret, just as she sought to hide Evie from her neighbours when she was younger. The scandal of having a mixed race child has always hung heavy on her while Evie always longed to find friends who looked like her.
Louise Hare’s debut novel is beautifully written. She shows how painful it is to be different in a city where everyone has the same skin colour and the sense of loneliness and isolation that Evie feels every day of her life. What really comes through though is the deep rooted insidiousness of the racism that she and Lawrie face.
Yet This Lovely City is also a tender and affecting story of love; of the triumph of hope over adversity. What she achieves beautifully is to point towards a London that will become accepting of the Windrush generation and their descendants and as we realise that, we see the real horror in the Home Office policy that is causing so much harm today.
Verdict: A moving story eloquently told. A love story wrapped in a mystery, surrounded by hostility yet which is heart-breaking yet manages to show us the optimism of love. Utilising clear and expressive prose, Louise Hare has written a book to treasure.
Louise Hare is a London based author. Her debut novel This Lovely City is due to be published by HQ (Harper Collins) on March 12th 2020 and House of Anansi (N. America) on April 7th 2020. She has an MA in Creative Writing (Distinction) from Birkbeck, University of London.