No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, August 26, 2010

2010/68: London Bridges -- Jane Stevenson

She stopped and gestured at the pub they were passing, very ordinary-looking apart from its bright blue paintwork, with a flat, tiled frontage. “Look at this notice beside the door. It says it’s been here since 1462. Shakespeare probably drank here. See what I mean? Even the bars turn out to be historic.”
“I never noticed that. But why shouldn’t it still be here?” objected Dil. “Getting thirsty’s one of those things that just goes on happening. ‘S not really worth noticing. If we come back at opening time, we won’t find a bunch of Elizabethan actors quaffing sack, it’d be the guys from the wholesalers tipping down lager.”(p. 206)

London Bridges is a thriller set in contemporary London, though the plot ranges from seventeenth-century Greece to the wilds of Somerset. Jeanene is an Australian graduate student, studying classical Greek: while working in a Mayfair pharmacy she encounters Dr Sebastian Raphael, an ebullient academic specialising in the history and culture of Byzantium. Sebastian, it turns out, is off to Mount Athos in Greece, to visit the abbot of St Michael’s, in search of the sole surviving copy of the Alexiad, a sixth-century Greek poem which might make Sebastian’s name in the cut-throat world of the Institute. He traces the manuscript to London, to the church of St Michael which was destroyed in the Blitz: and then to the sole surviving representative of a small Greek merchant bank, Mr Eugenides, who lives a reclusive life in the heart of the City and is only too glad to help Sebastian.

Mr Eugenides has another new friend, a young lawyer named Edward Lupset, for whom the term ‘Yuppie Scum’ might have been invented. Edward, with the help of an unscrupulous Greek solicitor, has discovered a legal loophole concerning the bombed church, and confidently expects to make his fortune from it. Unfortunately Edward has neither respect for nor knowledge of history (morality also seems to be a closed, burnt and buried book to him) and his cunning plan goes awry.

There’s a sub-plot concerning a community garden built on the bombsite, and an interesting cast of supporting characters (including Hattie, who is introduced in a prefatory passage quoted from Margery Allingham’s The China Governess, and who is involved with a charity that derives its funds ‘from the chantry charities of the old London bridges’ (p. 86): this seems the only connection with the novel’s title, unless you take into account the frequent shuttlings between the City and Southwark). Because of a structural idiosyncrasy -- the book opens with a chapter that, chronologically, occurs about half-way through -- there’s less mystery for the reader, and more frustration as the characters thrash about in their ignorance. But London Bridges is atmospheric, very firmly rooted in modern London despite Jeanene’s constant awe at seeing Literature 101 all around her, and nicely paced. The final denouement didn’t fit with the feel of the rest of the novel (geographically or emotionally) but it did echo the occasional echoes of farce and slapstick.

I had to look up Godscall Palaeologue, the subject of a portrait that Sebastian admires, and was relieved to find that she only actually exists in Jane Stevenson’s novels: now I want to read the trilogy that culminates in The Empress of the Last Days, because I’m pretty sure it’ll have the same blend of humour, characterisation and genuine love for history that I found in London Bridges.

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