When I was very young, my bookcase was filled with novels that spoke a different English: jumper for sweater, lift for elevator; grips for barrettes. There was also high tea with crumpets, Mary Poppins, talking animals --- from Winnie to Aslan --- and lots of rain. And later there were moors, garden parties, Bilbo and Frodo, Cathy and Heathcliff. Small wonder that when I finally got to England I felt instantly at home, as if the entire country had been shaped according to my taste (it was the other way around, of course). "Literature's realler [sic] than life for a lot of us resident aliens," says Jeanene Malone, a Classics student from Australia whose strange encounter at a London chemist's (drugstore to you) opens this book. I second that emotion.
LONDON BRIDGES is a first novel by Jane Stevenson, who already has a novella collection, SEVERAL DECEPTIONS, to her credit. It is, among other things, a love letter to the city: its history, rehabilitation, and essential, messy vigor. The plot turns around the link between a monastery on Mount Athos and a London bombsite where a Greek Orthodox church once stood; many of the characters are involved in urban renewal, in the true sense, and collectively they represent the polyglot character of contemporary London --- gay and straight, foreign and homegrown, Cockney and terribly upper class. The book begins with a lovely sentence --- "London is a town for fog, mist swirling up from the river, the darkness between streetlights" --- and ends with a (literal) return to the source of the Thames.
Stevenson's book is also intended to evoke the work of classic English mystery writers (one of her characters is derived from Margery Allingham's 1963 novel, THE CHINA GOVERNESS), but there is never any doubt about whodunit. That's because the heroes, outsiders all (see above), are incredibly, enchantingly heroic, and the villains are very, very bad. The former, though they are human and not above a bit of evasion or embroidery of facts for the achievement of their (always laudable) ends, are shiningly decent and competent and fine. The latter --- including Edward, an inept, insolvent, and bigoted lawyer, and a pair of totally unscrupulous Greeks --- conspire to drug an old man (and worse) in the pursuit of extra cash.
It is clear that these repellent individuals will get the punishment they deserve; the only question is how. The busy plot chugs along for a good many pages --- characters are set in motion and led about in such a way that they bump into one another, love flowers with parallel gay and straight couples, marvelous coincidences happen --- before the heroes and the villains converge for a final chase involving a motorcycle gang led by the archdruid Merlin. Along the way, Stevenson manages to skewer the pomposity and misogyny of the academic world (a professor of comparative literature in Scotland, presumably she knows whereof she speaks). Her main vehicle is the irresistible Sebastian Raphael, a Byzantine scholar who makes a tidy sum dealing in antiquities on the side and for this (and for his over-the-top style, part Oscar Wilde, part Sebastian Flyte of Brideshead Revisited) is hated by many of his university colleagues. Sebastian, in whom self-interest and genuine affection for others coexist quite happily, has us rooting for him from the start.
Some caveats: The opening chapter is chronologically confusing rather than properly mysterious; the dialogue is rife with slang, shorthand, and arcane references (V&A, poofter, Past and Present) that may bewilder an American reader. But what will certainly grab anybody are the people --- reading LONDON BRIDGES is a bit like crashing a party and finding oneself in the company of fascinating strangers who soon become intimates. It is consistent with the British cult of dog worship that this circle includes Alice, a lurcher (a word I didn't know, for all my Anglophilia ---according to The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1979 edition, it's a cross between a greyhound and a collie or sheepdog). It is no accident, I'm sure, that the dog's name reminds us of a certain winsome, quintessentially English heroine and her adventures in Wonderland.
But this novel's charm could also be its undoing. It is so breezy, so endearingly chatty, that you aren't sure it has much substance. Such is my indictment: LONDON BRIDGES, title and all, could be a movie starring Hugh Grant. Should literature be so easy to take?
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on September 7, 2001