London has a way of carving out its own space in any story set in the city, transforming itself into an additional character. But in Elizabeth Day’s Paradise City, London’s atmospheric quality is deployed with such subtlety that the novel feels both unique to the metropolis and refreshingly universal. As much an exploration of London as it is of life, Paradise City delivers a moving portrait of the insecurities that define the human experience.
Four characters comprise the heart of the story: Sir Howard Pink, a self-made millionaire with a loveless marriage and missing daughter; Beatrice Kizza, an immigrant from Uganda fleeing persecution: Carol Hetherington, a widowed pensioner mired in grief; and Esme Reade, a journalist attempting to safeguard her humanity in a fast-paced and cutthroat industry. These characters soon find themselves thrown together through a series of chance encounters as Day creates an authentic voice for each individual.
The common thread uniting these characters, aside from calling London “home,” is a sense of not quite belonging. Howard is defined by a constant drive to prove himself, leading him to embrace a lifestyle of maintaining appearances rather than substance. Esme feels the need to earn her place in the newsroom, grappling with her attraction to her editor with an understanding that acting on her feelings could jeopardize her career. Beatrice and Carol lead smaller, quieter lives, but they are both devastated by the loss of loved ones.
With imposter syndrome commonly in public discourse, Paradise City feels crucially of the moment. But Day isn’t overly sentimental about the relationship between her characters and the nagging voice in the back of their minds. Instead, she meets that complex struggle head-on, giving them the space to recognize the roots of their own insecurity. She doesn’t require that her characters lose agency; she doesn’t write them too precious or overly sympathetic. Each of them hides a competing darkness and light, and as a result, their fears of not quite belonging ring remarkably true.
Day topples barriers between her characters like age, race and wealth in a way that challenges the increasingly segregated urban experience. The haves and have-nots are no longer a world apart, as their lives intersect at random crossroads in the vast machine that propels London. In the ecosystem within Paradise City, a retired woman from the middle class and the CEO of a clothing store chain can recognize their shared experiences and gravitate toward one another. Individualism, while not punished, slips into the background of the novel in favor of a communal existence.
Engaging and fast-paced, Paradise City walks the line between engrossing drama and nuanced personal narrative. Day explores the intersection between the external and the internal, joining disparate spheres to give her characters the sense of belonging they so desperately desire.