'Paradise City' brings together four very different London lives

Elizabeth Day's story of lives in collision puts an unexpected twist on a scandal from the headlines.

Paradise City By Elizabeth Day Bloomsbury USA 368 pp.

Hooking a reader seems, at times, to be a simple matter of choreography. Just set a handful of characters in motion, point them toward each other, and, at critical moments, allow their paths to cross. Charles Dickens, for example, does this masterfully and Maeve Binchy mechanically, but either way the hook is set. In Paradise City, Elizabeth Day has composed an elegant variation on the theme, a modern minuet for four characters – Howard, Esme, Beatrice, and Carol – whose lives randomly intersect. Londoners by birth or by choice, these strangers share a city that also lives and breathes on these pages, from grimy Shepherd’s Bush to sleek Mayfair. That’s where we meet Howard. “He loved hotels,” Day writes. “The warm swish of the automatic doors. The careful neutrality of the carpets, swept with the indentations of that morning’s vacuuming.”

On the first Monday of each month, Howard Pink, the 65-year-old owner of the Fash Attack clothing chain, who is worth ₤150 million, takes the same suite at the Mayfair Rotunda. “There is a particular security, for Howard, derived only from an ease that has been painstakingly thought out by other people for his benefit.” The reader, too, feels a reassuring sense of being in expert hands as Day gracefully sets the scene and then delivers the novel’s first shock. Howard has a drink and a bath, admits the Ugandan maid who comes “to do the pre-dinner turn-down,” and sexually assaults her. “It is all over in a matter of seconds.”

It is not, of course, over. Recalling the real-life episode involving Dominique Strauss-Kahn in a Manhattan hotel, we anticipate that the maid will speak up. And she does.

"It is the man from 423,” Beatrice Kizza realizes when she sees Howards’s photograph in a newspaper later that day, "... a millionaire.... She narrows her eyes. He should have paid her.”

Those five words sound like a key turning in a lock. But instead of closing in, toward private revenge, the novel opens out. “I do not want your money,” Beatrice tells Howard when they meet again. “I would like a job.” So begins Beatrice’s struggle upward and Howard’s partial redemption, a reciprocal drama that never descends into sappiness. Day has a wonderfully light, ironic tone that keeps the novel’s sentimentality in check – at least until the grand finale – and her alternating narratives intensify the mild suspense that she creates with each revelation. We leave Howard in his hotel bathrobe, for example, and meet Esme, a young woman that Howard idly notices as he surveys the street from his Mayfair suite. Thirty and single, Esme is a newspaper reporter with a crush on her vile editor and a sensibility too fine, perhaps, for the career she has chosen. (Day, herself a journalist, deftly conveys the tawdriness and sporadic exhilaration of the job.)

While plotting her next story – "the rise in popularity of semi-naked charity calendars” – Esme is assigned to have lunch at the Dorchester with Howard Pink, to compensate him for an unflattering press photograph. In one of the novel’s finest scenes, each senses in the other a familiar, long-carried pain. Howard’s wound, it turns out, is tabloid fodder – the disappearance years earlier of his student daughter, Ada – whereas Esme’s is private and by comparison mundane: the sudden death of her father when she was eight. The fleeting moment of mutual recognition passes, as it would in life, and Day once again immerses us in the quotidian details of her characters’ lives, each one, we soon see, shadowed by grief.

Beatrice is haunted by the horror she fled and the lover she left behind; Howard by his missing daughter; Esme by her dead father; and, in sedate Wandsworth, Carol Hetherington, recently widowed, finds herself too often in her dressing gown watching morning TV.

“Now that he is gone, all that is left of him is scraps of paper,” Carol laments, “torn-up fragments of memory, an absence around which she shapes her days” – until her neighbor, Alan, drops in to ask her to water his garden while he is on vacation. They have coffee, then “Carol picks up the empty mugs and stands to put them in the sink, hoping he’ll get the message.... She stays there, her hand pushed against the damp rim of the steel molding. Alan looks at her, silent, for a few seconds.”

He leaves. “But even as she goes upstairs to get dressed, she can feel the shadow of him: a darkness lingering like a cat in the corner, waiting to pounce.” The discovery that follows cinches together the novel’s various strands as neatly and efficiently as Howard Pink’s bespoke tailor might have done.

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