London Lies Beneath

Written by Stella Duffy
Review by Ruth Downie

The year is 1912, and three young friends join the 2nd Walworth Scouts in search of adventures beyond the East End of London: Tom, whose mother sells medicines and good-luck charms from her barrow, “dispensing hope and maybe”; his cousin Jimmy, son of a loud father and a gently persuasive mother; and Itzhak, for whom London is home but whose family stories are of Latvia. The planned adventure does not end in the way anyone had hoped, and each family struggles in its own way to come to terms with what has happened.

The novel neatly weaves its way through many stories: it brings to life a real but little-remembered incident, it gives intimate glimpses into individual families, and it’s also a rich evocation of East End life before the First World War. It is deeply moving without being sentimental, and it offers a compelling portrayal of how families survive, and of how people in a close community try to find ways to support each other. Although the main characters appear to be fictional, this story does what historical fiction at its best can do: it brings an event vividly to life for modern readers and bears eloquent testimony to the stories of the real people involved. London Lies Beneath is one of the most memorable books I read in 2016, and I recommend it highly.