Byline: JEREMY GAVRON
IT is a writer's worst nightmare to open a newspaper, or walk into a bookshop, and see there reviewed, or displayed, the very book you have been working on for the past two years, written by someone else. This is what happened to me, or in a moment of panic I thought what had happened, when I read about Monica Ali's Brick Lane a few months ago. I was - am still - writing a novel about Brick Lane. Its provisional title was Brick Lane. As might be imagined, I felt sick.
As I read more about Monica Ali's book, however, I stopped feeling sick and though, after buying it, the novel sat for a couple of weeks unread on my bedside table, when I did start reading it I was soon carried away by the story and characters. This was partly because Brick Lane is impossible to dislike and partly because our books are so different.
Hers is the tale of a Bangladeshi family over the past 20 years. Mine is a fictional tour of the history of Brick Lane, written in a mosaic of connected stories. Only a small part of my novel concerns Bangladeshis (though I do, as Monica Ali does, have a character involved with heroin called Tariq).
But I was also freed to enjoy her book by the realisation that the coincidence of our two Brick Lane novels is not, it seems to me, a coincidence.
It is the kind of synchronicity that often happens with art. Two, or more, writers come to the same story at the same time because it is a story crying out to be told. A story that needs to be told. And this is the case, I think, with Brick Lane - not only Brick Lane, but other parts of London: Brixton, Tottenham, Zadie Smith's Willesden.
In Dickens's time the London novel was the great city novel. Dickens's London was dense and rich with colour, people, noise, smells. All of life existed here. But then something happened. In the 20th century the great city novel moved to Joyce's Dublin, Bellow's Chicago - even Welsh's Edinburgh.
London fiction became small-scale, suburban. The most notable piece of London literature of the last century was TS Eliot's The Waste Land, and even that, with its images of commuters flowing over London Bridge, its concern with rats, has something small-minded and suburban about it.
More recently, Martin Amis's London Fields, published in 1989, was a deliberate attempt to write a great London novel. But for all its stylistic brilliance - its efforts to capture a modern London language - London Fields strains too hard, with its apocalyptic vision, its landscape of gargoyles, for a Dickensian grandeur that it does not quite reach.
William Boyd's Armadillo (1998) is also a London novel, replete with sweeping descriptions of the city, and what is interesting here is that Boyd makes his protagonist the son of Romanian immigrants.
A decade ago I spent two years working in a prison as a writer-inresidence and I was struck then by how many of the stories I was given to read were by men trying to make sense of growing up between two cultures. The prison was near London and it was filled with young men of West Indian, Turkish, Pakistani and Colombian origin.
Their writing was mostly not very good - these were men who had lost the plot of their own lives - though it was always lively, the language colourful and expressive. …