Upbeat novel with humanity at core
Fiction: Paradise City, Elizabeth Day, Bloomsbury, pbk, 368 pages, £16.99
The renewed energy of London in the 21st century has returned the English capital to the forefront of the contemporary novel. As in the Victorian era, the creation of wealth and the people this attracts present the novelist with unrivalled opportunities for characters enmeshed in capitalism, corruption and charity.
Elizabeth Day's third novel is about four strangers - self-made multimillionaire Howard, Ugandan refugee Beatrice, widowed Carol and reporter Esme - whose lives intersect for a brief period one summer. When we first encounter them, Howard is relieving his sporadic sexual itch on a hotel chambermaid, Beatrice. His sense of entitlement is such that it does not even occur to him to offer her payment, believing she must be complicit.
Loathsome though he is (and Day's satire stretches to his owning a ridiculous mansion in Kensington and a second wife whose "buttocks are as hard as an overcooked piece of steak"), Howard is not wholly odious or indeed comical.
The only person he has ever really loved is his daughter, Ada, who vanished as a teenager and sent his deeper self into lockdown. Esme, an ambitious young hack, wants to get an exclusive interview with him about his private life, and it is the sympathetic Carol who, most unexpectedly, provides the answer to his quest for truth.
The plot of Paradise City has a narrative energy which carries the reader along in elegant, sprightly prose, as all four characters are propelled through a story of self-deception, murder and love.
Inevitably for a novelist who is also a journalist, some of Day's sharpest passages are about what reporting for a tabloid does to an individual who is neither insensitive nor malign.
If a certain famous fashion retailer may have inspired Sir Howard Pink, this in no way makes Paradise City a roman-à-clef. True, you do find yourself wishing for more authorial asperity as the plot unfolds; Day is so kind to her creations that even hard-nosed Howard becomes quite philanthropic.
However, the depictions of Beatrice's rape as a lesbian in Uganda and Carol's love for her dead husband are moving, humane and convincing.
It is a rare novel that leaves you feeling there are more good people than bad ones in London.
Admired for her portraits of dysfunctional families, Day's third novel is an advance which, while retaining her sensitivity, signals the emergence of a literary novelist whose optimism and generosity should gain her a much bigger audience.
Amanda Craig's latest novel, Hearts and Minds, is set in contemporary London