A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens


You'll almost certainly know the opening lines, and there's a decent chance you'll know the closing ones. You'll know the two cities of the title are Paris and London, and that the French Revolution plays a central part in this story. But only in reading it do you get the full sense of everything Dickens conveys. The terror of The Terror, the claustrophobia of the Bastille, the cold obsession of Madame Defarge (undoubtedly the most memorable knitting revolutionary in literary history), and his message, the golden thread throughout, that nobody is ever beyond redemption.

On the page, this is really a book about the French revolution. Large swathes are played out in London, but Dickens' focus throughout feels like it is on Paris and the events taking place there. But it's still a tale of two cities. Dickens supported the cause of the revolution but not its methods. That much is clear from his writing. His fear, it seems, was that those methods would cross the channel and sweep through the other city of the title. This book was his clear warning against that. 

This is the sort of book that difficult to finish. We read the closing chapter on the Northern Line and looked around afterwards perturbed by the normality around us. Why could nobody see what we had just been through! That last monologue, with talk of redemption and freedom, of struggle and beauty, remains as relevant now as it was in the 1859 when it was written. 'It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done' says the book's final line. Dickens may have been reflecting on what he'd just finished writing. But it's also an invocation. 

Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman


If you spend more time on Twitter than is healthy then like us you'll have seen recently the outrage about Kim Kardashian's new hairstyle. 'Cultural appropriation!' cried bots and non-bots alike. We're not going to wade into that debate - highlighting it for the purposes of an attention grabbing intro is more than enough - but cultural appropriation is as tricky an issue in fiction as it is in a hairdresser. More so, even, we might say if we're allowed to... Is it, for example, acceptable for a 35 year old white man from Bedfordshire to write the story of an 11 year old Ghanaian immigrant? 

That's not a question for us to answer, but we will say we are glad he did. His creation - 11 year old Harrison - brings the excitement of childhood to life. He is an ebullient child, full of life and running and happiness, and when matched with his innocence (like the three stripes he draws on his trainers with a marker pen) the reader can't help but be drawn in to his adventure and in to his life on an unnamed but undoubtedly tough London estate. We walk the streets with him as he has numerous first experiences, getting used to this new life. 

This is a wonderful book with an unforgettable protagonist, portraying a life of the sort far too often hidden from view in depictions of London. In a perfect world, this would have been written by a Ghanaian immigrant. As the book demonstrates in heart-wrenching ways, this isn't a perfect world, but it is made that little bit better by the existence of a 35 year old white man's attempt to understand the life of a young immigrant boy.  

The Embassy of Cambodia, by Zadie Smith


69 pages, 21 mini-chapters, 2 large coffees. This is a New Yorker-length short story (we know that because it was a New Yorker short story), and it is testament to Zadie Smith's popularity that her publishers thought it worth turning into this pocket-sized hardback. We read it in a couple of hours, and left the cafe convinced that we'd been in some sort of time-freeze. In very few words Smith manages to take you deep into the life of Fatou, a nanny-cum-cleaner who has emigrated to Smith's own corner of north-west London. What the book isn't really about is the incongruous Embassy of Cambodia, built down the road from Fatou's employer's house. But that's the point. 'Surely there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle', an omniscient narrator ponders. How much of this growing, expanding, shrinking world can we really care about? The insight this novella gives us into the life of an immigrant suggests we should be drawing that circle lightly, and allow ourselves to re-draw it around new people and experiences that deserve our focus and our care. We know of no better place than London, and no better writer than Zadie Smith, in which to find these things.