A south London neighbourhood forms the nexus for this split narrative novel, with half the story set in the 1850s and the other half in 2011. The 1850s portion follows Joseph, a middle class man who lives in the respectful north half of the river but researches the lives of the poor living in the rougher southern parts. Joseph is writing reports for his boss, Mayhew, who is a real historical figure. Madeleine is recently laid off lecturer who moves from central London to south London for a change of pace, and ends up living very close to the areas where Joseph once researched. Madeleine has been aimlessly filling her days since her layoff and slowly builds herself into the neighbourhood life in her new home.
If you’re thinking, ‘that doesn’t make a lot of conflict for a novel’, you would be right. I made it 170 pages before realizing that this was more of a character study and I wasn’t that invested in these particular characters. I really liked the idea of a novel that takes place in Mayhew’s London but this one didn’t grab me.