Contemporary British Fiction
Originally published by Columbia Daily Tribune.
“Being British is about driving in a German car to an Irish pub for a Belgian beer, and then traveling home, grabbing an Indian curry or a Turkish kebab on the way, to sit on Swedish furniture and watch American shows on a Japanese TV.”
—Diagoras, respondent to a survey in the UK’s Telegraph
If the phrase “British fiction” conjures up visions of the Brontë sisters wandering the windswept moors or a top-hatted Charles Dickens in 19th-century London, you are overdue for a literary hop across the pond to explore contemporary writing from the United Kingdom.
Let me pause here to say we are not dismissing any classic texts as irrelevant or unworthy of attention. In truth, the themes explored by Victorian novelists still resonate today. Dickens was a masterful social critic and defender of the poor. In “David Copperfield” (1850), for example, he criticizes both a grossly inadequate system of education and an abusive legal and penal system. And what reader can forget Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” (1847), raging against custom and convention, calling the wealthy Mr. Rochester her equal and addressing him as such? Insert fist raised in solidarity here! A number of these novelists’ literary descendants likewise tackle issues of class and societal shift. The contexts of these explorations, however, are greatly changed, and beyond the basic fact of geography, the meaning of “British fiction” proves difficult to pinpoint.
Globalization and waves of immigration have altered Britain’s cultural landscape, and subjects addressed in recent fiction reflect these tensions. The opening sentences of Chris Cleave’s “Little Bee” (Simon and Schuster, 2009) clearly and ominously demark race as a central theme: “Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl. Everyone would be pleased to see me coming.” Sarah and Andrew, a British couple on vacation in Nigeria, fatefully encounter Little Bee and her sister—the only people to survive a massacre in their village—and are confronted with an excruciating decision in an attempt to save them. A few years later, Little Bee seeks refugee status in London and reconnects with Sarah, the two forging an unlikely friendship. In this emotional page-turner, Cleave uses both Sarah’s narrative and Little Bee’s voice—full of humor as well as the bitterness of the dislocated—to underscore society’s frequent failure to provide real aid to refugees.
Novelist Zadie Smith also explores immigration in “White Teeth” (Random House, 2000), following the friendship of World War II veterans Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal and their multiracial families in working-class London. Part raucous family drama, part meditation on assimilation, religion and cultural change, this dense, smart and sometimes zany melting pot of a book resists easy summary, much like modern British identity.
Like immigration, scientific achievements and new technologies provide expanded realms for social analysis. In “Solar” (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2010), Ian McEwan (“Atonement,” 2002) uses the field of physics and the problem of global warming as backdrop and metaphor for a carefully crafted examination of personal and professional excess. And genetic engineering takes center stage in Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), in which clones are raised for the purpose of saving “normal” humans through organ donation. Clone Kathy H. reflects on her upbringing at an educational facility in the English countryside, where she and others like her learn of their eventual fate. Ishiguro’s haunting story highlights the conflict between what is scientifically possible and what is morally bearable and questions what it means to be human.
Even in the pages of contemporary British love stories, questions of identity and cultural change can swim beneath the surface. Helen Simonson’s “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” (Random House, 2010) is both a romantic comedy of manners and a smart examination of the power of cultural norms in a small English village. Major Pettigrew values tradition, etiquette and a good cup of tea, but encroaching real estate developers and a surprising romance with a Pakistani widow threaten his steady life. This literary fiction manages to address racism, religious fundamentalism and provincialism while providing readers with a charming late-in-life romance.
Which brings us, finally, to the romance of Julia Stuart’s “The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise” (Doubleday, 2010). In the case of Balthazar and Hebe, the couple at this novel’s center, their love is waning because of the inability of either to properly grieve the loss of their young son. Their public living situation exacerbates the tension, as Balthazar—a Beefeater—and his wife live in the Tower of London, where he is placed in charge of housing the queen’s unruly collection of exotic animals. The cast of characters within the tower’s walls seems to have as many secrets as the mysterious objects Hebe catalogs at her job at the London Underground’s Department of Lost Things. No, this book doesn’t address globalization or technology, so how do we explain this selection? Well, the characters are so endearingly quirky and the setting and plot so delightfully eccentric that we couldn’t resist. It’s just so British.