“Therefore, in the spirit of diversity and exploration, I have compiled a list of what I see as the ten best novels on modern British identity, to remind us that British identity is not exhausted by the referendum divides…”
Editor’s note: This piece has been modeled after Matt McManus’ October 8th article “Ten Books Every Progressive Should Read to Understand the Right.”
stensibly a question regarding Great Britain’s economic and political relationship with the European Union, the Brexit referendum in 2016 was far more a means for Britain to work out what its identity is in the 21st century. In truth, the referendum became a proxy battle for more deeper battles to express themselves. Conflicts over questions of identity, culture, and what felt like the soul of the nation were more pertinent to the referendum and its surrounding discourse than any cost-benefit analysis over trade and the nature of Britain’s political relationship with Europe. Since the referendum, the question of “Leave” or “Remain” has expanded to become more an expression of identity, with liberals, progressives and internationalists sorting themselves into the Remain camp and conservatives, nationalists and communitarians tending to express themselves as Leavers. While today these identities still have much purchase on the self-consciousness of individuals in Great Britain, I have felt that viewing modern British identity solely through these Brexit identity lenses is both constraining and distracts us from the myriad of other identity formations and diverse experiences for people in British society today. Removing the Brexit referendum lens allows us to view British identity anew, to see that these identities, while indeed emotive for many, are not the only expressions of identity in Britain. In fact, they are growing to be rather stale and outdated. Therefore, in the spirit of diversity and exploration, I have compiled a list of what I see as the ten best novels on modern British identity, to remind us that British identity is not exhausted by the referendum divides, as well as that identity in Britain is a rich tapestry, culturally diverse, and an ongoing process of being, renewal, and discovery.
Ordinary People by Diana Evans (2018)
“‘Everything I was and what I am now,’ she said, ‘whatever that is. I’m not sure I know any more…'”
Diana Evan’s novel takes us intimately into the space of middle class black family life in suburban London. Damian, full of resentment towards his wife, Stephanie, whom he blames for his failure to become a writer, retreats into himself, unable to reconcile himself with what he sees as the collapsing of his individual “I” into the “we” that is his marriage. Melissa feels increasingly estranged from her former self, aware that while her motherhood has “extended herself,” it has also “erased” who she is. Her husband Michael is deeply distressed by the receding of her love for him; he becomes a shadow of his former self, no longer the confident, suave man of his youth. All the characters in this novel are consumed by a London that invades all aspects of their lives, suburbia, the commute, knife crime, and the antagonisms that these all bring. There is a sense in which these characters have all lost an essential part of their selves and, by extension, their identities. From this angle, the novel is a deeply existential one. Read this novel for an existential treatment of middle class life in suburban London.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)
“Because this is the other thing about immigrants (‘fugees, émigrés, travellers): they cannot escape their history any more than you yourself can lose your shadow.”
Zadie Smith is Britain’s greatest novelist on multiculturalism, and nowhere is her talent more on display than in White Teeth. Reading her book recently, I felt that this great multicultural novel was very much a product of its time. Released in 2000, three years into the feel-good era that characterized Tony Blair’s first Labour government, it was a time that held much optimism for the future. It was an era in which society had grown to be comfortable in its own skin. It strikes me how such an optimistic and joyous tale would be hard to come by in present-day, post-Brexit Britain. Nevertheless, Smith’s novel is wonderful in its intimate portrayal of the overlapping lives of multicultural Londoners, the burden of history that we all bear, and the challenge that comes with maintaining our identities in a world that seems to be moving faster than what we can keep up with.
A Stranger City by Linda Grant (2019)
“London was simply too big, too absorbed in its own individual business, too intent on getting to work and going shopping and having dates and affairs and planning robberies…”
The title of Linda Grant’s A Stranger City is an apt one. Her London is a strange city populated by strangers, and, as Jake Arnott has written in his review of the book, the uncertainty of the city provokes individuals to confront their own sense of selves “so that the stranger in the title oscillates between noun and comparative adjective.” Grant’s London is perhaps the postmodern city, seemingly having no fixed boundaries or nodal points for orientation, as well as being irreverent of its past, which, by now, “was too large, too ancient, too many layers obscured it.” The novel nicely captures the reality of life for many in contemporary London, a life of temporary housing and precarious living: “nomadic flat-sharers renting, with no roots in a community.” One protagonist—reflecting upon her experience—notes that her generation is one that is “constantly being picked up by the legs like frogs or cats and flung…out of jobs and flung to the margins of the city.” The postmodern uncertainty of Grant’s London (and its effect on individuals’ senses of self) is reminiscent of what David Harvey has described in his 1991 book The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. This is where he argues that a prevailing neoliberal logic of commodification in society has ushered in a culture that emphasizes the virtues of instantaneity and disposability. This culture of “throw-awayness”—for Harvey—has framed a new relationship between the individual and temporality, whereby the linearity of past, present, and future is replaced by a compressed view of the world; time is overcome by space, creating a sense of foreclosure. For Harvey, this sense of foreclosure contributes to individuals feeling as if they are no longer able to engage in substantial acts of agency in which to shape the world around them. Grant’s characters share a similar sense of foreclosure and deficit of agency, and her novel is a great read on this effect upon selfhood in the postmodern maelstrom that is contemporary London.
Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze (2020)
“…one of the points that Nietzsche makes is that morality is just a rule of behaviour relative to the level of danger in which individuals live. If you’re living in dangerous times, you can’t afford to live according to moral structures the way someone who lives in safety and peace can. So it’s not actually some universal natural ting, you get me…”
This is a work of autofiction by Gabriel Krauze, drawing upon his real experiences of living a life of crime and violence in London. His novel is set in the harsh housing estates of London, in particular that of the notorious South Kilburn. It is a visceral and raw book; the prose is immensely impressive, crackling with energy. Who They Was is particularly arresting in the way it penetrates into foundational concepts of the modern social contract. From a Hobbesian view of the social contract, individuals give up their “natural right” to everything, which includes the right to perpetrate violence in the preservation of their lives. In the social contract, however, individuals pledge their allegiance to the Sovereign; in doing so, they give up their right to violence. In return, they get to live in society, where no one is violent and where they are safeguarded by the protection of the sovereign. This is how modern people understand the role of the state, and the state’s legitimacy rests, in large part, in its ability to keep individuals in a society safe. Krauze’s characters, however, live outside of this social contract. Their lives are violent ones. Those in his story are not afforded protection by the state, and they are not free from violence. Krauze writes: “[the police] won’t give a s— when they realise who you are, what you do, because in their eyes you’ve put yourself outside of society’s protection by doing crime.” It is not often in mainstream literature that we are confronted by the reality of life outside the social contract, but this is what we see in Krauze’s book. The brilliance of this book is the way in which it explores identity, emotions, and worldview in London’s “state of nature.” It is an arresting novel, which should spurn in the reader reflection upon policy failures, as well as the abnegation of the state in upholding its end of the bargain in the social contract.
NW by Zadie Smith (2012)
“She struggled to think of anyone besides perhaps James Baldwin and Jesus who have experienced the profound isolation and loneliness she now knew to be the one and only true reality of this world.”
Set in North-West London, the place after which the novel is named, Smith’s story captures the claustrophobia of working-class life in this part of the city. Readers familiar with this corner of London will delight in Smith’s portrayal of not just the local areas of Willesden, Kilburn, Neasden, but the sights, sounds, and smells of the high streets, such as the “sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab, exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock.” It is interesting to read this book alongside Smith’s earlier White Teeth. While White Teeth radiates a confident optimism that was characteristic of pre-Iraq War, New Labour Britain, NW conveys a sense in which the aminating ideals of the new millennium, the economic liberalism, social plurality, and ethos of individualism have collapsed under the weight of their own contradictions. New Labour’s flagship philosophy, “people want to get on and make something of themselves” is replaced by the more cynical “not everyone can be invited to the party. Not this century.” The two main protagonists of this novel are Leah, the daughter of Irish immigrants, and her Caribbean best friend Keisha (who later changes her name to Natalie). Both women have gone to university, leaving behind the modest surroundings of their youth. In doing so, they have changed themselves, most sharply in Natalie’s case, rising to a high-flying lawyer “crazy busy with self-invention.” However, both women are beset by internal conflict over the lives they have pursued. They feel acute alienation in their new-found middle-class realities, and it is clear they struggle internally over the self that they present to the world, as well as the people that they actually are inside.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (2017)
“What would you stop at to help the people you love most?”
“The ones we love…are enemies of the state”
(translated by Seamus Heaney)
Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is a novel that is politically and psychologically modeled on Sophocles’ Antigone. In Shamsie’s re-telling, her Aneeka is Sophocles’ Antigone, driven by love for her brother Parvaiz, who has left London to work for the media arm of ISIS. She risks her life and reputation to bring her foolish brother home. Parvaiz is the enemy of the British state, much like Polynices was the enemy of the state of Thebes. Shamsie expertly reworks the themes of Antigone to explore Muslim identity and self-consciousness in modern Britain, touching on issues such as the clash between secular society and religious piety, loyalty to the state and loyalty to one’s family.
Weaved throughout these themes is the fiery love story between Aneeka and Eamonn, the son of the British Home Secretary, Karamat Lone, a man who has turned away from his Muslim faith and culture and is now animated by “public service, national service, British values.” With this love story, Shamsie further explores Islam as being central to one’s identity and sense of self, as well as the ideology of secularism, which, while sincere, often has blind spots. Read this book for a wonderful treatment of Muslim identity in modern Britain.
England and Other Stories by Graham Swift (2014)
“He was born in Wapping in 1951. The Wapping he can remember from back then was still pretty much the Wapping that Hitler had flattened. Look at it now.”
After 300 years of union, disentangling a concept of England and Englishness from notions of Britishness is notoriously difficult. What is England? And who are the English? When represented, England is often portrayed romantically, and evocations of England tend to have a theme of the pastoral running through them. Take George Orwell’s famous essay “England Your England,” for example, where he writes that Englishness is “somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads.”
In the same essay, Orwell notes the “extreme gentleness” of the English, and that “the gentleness of the English civilization is perhaps its most marked characteristic.” Many thinkers on the Left today, however, (with Alex Niven foremost among them) have begun to reject these notions of England, calling them “vague anachronisms” and “cultural day-dreams,” while arguing that popular notions of England have crossed over completely “into mythopoeia, high confusion and self-contradiction.” There are merits to this argument, and I would recommend Niven’s New Model Island: How to Build a Radical Culture Beyond the Idea of England (2019) to explore these arguments in greater detail; however, what is neglected in these readings of Englishness is that the fact that these ideas resonate with so many English people. English tropes and myths have a deep emotive pull, which effectively brings a concreteness to the ideas. English people recognize Englishisms when they see them, and they hold these imaginings in their hearts. Who are the English, and what is England? Perhaps it is difficult to say, but a good place to start is with Graham Swift’s collection of short stories. These stories contain the universal: the human condition, issues of life and death, and the struggle that comes with both; but they come bound with the particularism of England, with its long history, emotive geography, and the quotidian peculiarity of English lives. Read these short stories to get a flavor of the poetic horizons of the English sense of self.
Ironopolis by Glen James Brown (2018)
“Everybody is being made redundant—tens of thousands of people. Whole communities. Ironopolis is falling.”
In this novel, Glen James Brown takes us to the fictional Burn Council Estate on Teesside, in Northern England. The interwoven stories of personal and familial tragedy are set to the backdrop of the decline of a once-thriving steel and iron industry in Middlesbrough—and the visible effect that this decline has had upon working-class communities there. Brown captures the destitution experienced by the working-class communities of Ironopolis, a concrete labyrinth built and sustained by a different time, the post-war consensus (social democratic, Fordist, communitarian), which has now been swept away and replaced by the logic of the market (neoliberal, technocratic, individualist), summarized by the infamous mantra “there is no such thing as society.” There is a touch of Dostoevskyean wretchedness to all of Brown’s characters, coupled with a wry humor so characteristic of British people. It is Kafkaesque too; residents are totally powerless, at the whim of a faceless housing association, arbitrarily knocking down flats, breaking up communities, and dispersing former residents. Social democracy is just a faded memory of their grandparents’ generation. Ironopolis is falling; communal solidarity is harder and harder to sustain, and atomization permeates every human relationship. Destitution is at every crumbling corner, but even when moments are at their most wretched, there is a warmth to Brown’s writing and characters, radiating a deep humanity. Ironopolis is an extraordinarily powerful novel; there is struggle here, yes, but the light never goes out. Read Ironopolis to understand working-class selfhood in post-industrial Britain.
Brick Lane by Monica Ali (2004)
“I wasn’t me, and you weren’t you…What we did—we made each other up”
This is the story of Nazneen, a Bangladeshi woman who takes fate into her own hands and lays claim to who it is that she is. Living a depressing life of religious piety, dutiful domesticity, and near-total subservience to her much older husband, and—while consoled by having her young children and sheltered life—she is unhappy and beset with anxieties. Nazneen has always been guided by the principle of fate, committed to bearing the burden that life throws up at her. This is a feminist story, the story of a woman who claims her agency. In defiance of traditional customs and what has been expected of her, she breaks free from domination. Beginning around the end of the 20th century and on into the new millennium, the novel is set to a backdrop of fraying racial tensions between Bangladeshi Muslims in East London and the “white working class.”
Girl, Women, Other by Bernadine Evaristo (2019)
“…being trans wasn’t about playacting an identity on a whim, it’s about becoming your true self in spite of society’s pressures to be otherwise…”
Bernadine Evaristo shared the Man Booker prize with Margaret Atwood’s The Testament in 2019 thanks to this novel, and it is really not hard to see why. This is an outstanding novel and a profound book about modern British identity. Her novel follows 12 characters; their stories are interconnected and intergenerational. All of her characters are finding out how to be in the world, working themselves out in a world that is both complex and challenging. The brilliance of Evaristo’s novel is the way in which it reimagines tired views of British identity. One example out of many is the heart-wrenching story of Bummi, who fled the violence and suffering of the Niger Delta, ending up eventually in London, working hard as a cleaner to provide for a better life for her daughter, Carole. “You must go back and fight the battles that are your British birth-right, Carole, as a true Nigerian,” she says to her daughter, despondent from her initial experiences as one of very few black girls at Oxford University. In this short, compelling sentence, Bummi captures beautifully British identity in its modern form, showing us a facet of Britishness that flows from wellsprings beyond the bounds of the nation-state, being both culturally and—dare I say—spiritually diverse as well. In these pages, Evaristo’s stories are full of such interesting workings of modern British identity, showing Britain in a light few have seen before. There is no better novel exploring modern British identity than Evaristo’s 2019 triumph.
Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan (2020) This is a novel about how our past comes to define us. Set mainly in Scotland, Manchester, and a small bit of London, Mayflies is saturated with 1980s culture and the forlornness that the era engendered.
And The Land Lay Still by James Robertson (2010) This is an ambitious novel set against the backdrop of the change and flux of latter 20th century Scotland. Read it to understand the formulation of a powerful Scottish identity and consciousness as we come into the 21st century.
In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne (2018) Set on a north London council estate, Gunaratne’s novel captures the feeling of uncertainty, alienation, and the sense of foreclosed futures for adolescent boys in London, growing up in a world without much of a place for them. Laced with the Grime tracks of Skepta and Wiley, the novel immerses the reader in the context of the boy’s lives.
Daniel McIntyre recently completed an MSc in political theory from the London School of Economics