Lucifer Over London is an anthology of 9 essays, exploring the immigrant experience of London. London is portrayed as a city in constant transition, transaction and translation. Often, how we view a city is more a projection of how we see ourselves. We each take something different from our experiences and thus London dons a different persona in every one of these narratives. Last week I had the pleasure of attending the virtual launch of Lucifer Over London and I really enjoyed watching all of the contributors talk so passionately about their experiences of living in London as outsiders to the city.
There were some essays in this collection that were maybe a little too literary for me, but they all had something profound to say about my favourite city and I did manage to take something from each. For the purposes of this review, I have chosen to talk about my two favourites from the collection. The essays in this anthology are all widely different and I do believe there is something for everyone within this book but for me there were two clear standouts. They were ‘Oath to the Queen’ by the magnificent, Xiaolu Guo, and Zinovy Zink’s ‘My Private Prime Meridian’.
In ‘Oath to the Queen’, Guo addresses British ideologies, with the story focusing on her upcoming ‘Life in the UK’ exam. This exam demands in-depth knowledge of the British monarchy and the nicknames their heirs went by, rather than of the country’s legislation and civil rights. .There were parts of this essay that were incredibly funny. In response to the citizenship question about what bird people eat at Christmas, Guo considers that the answer may be different for Asians living in the UK or even vegetarians who don’t fit into this homogenised view of British culture. Guo does not hold back in this essay and one of my favourite quotes from it was about halfway in when she writes, “As the sub-continental-looking examination officer paced up and down, I thought: why were there no questions about the East India Company or Partition?” One of my favourite things about her writing is that Guo leaves clues in her writing, yet never reveals all so that her reader still has to work to decipher the text’s message.
I found some of the points in this essay reminiscent of the protagonist’s inner-monologue in Guo latest novel, A Lover’s Discourse and I believe this essay is a nice follow up for anyone who wanted more of those discussions. There is a very satirical element to this essay which is explored through the lack of accountability and hypocrisy in the British nation. For example, Guo notes how Britain is proud to be a democratic nation, whilst also demanding its residents to swear under oath that they will “be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her Heirs and Successors according to law.” She notes that her lack of preparation for this exam was in part out of resistance in having to “learn the history of kings and queens just like we learn fairy tales or consume the latest soap operas” as a way to instil authority of the ruling classes. Signing off the essay with a nod to the national anthem was a really nice touch and made for a thoroughly impressive ending to a fantastic piece of writing.
My second favourite essay was ‘My Private Prime Meridian’ which follows the speaker in every area of London he has lived. He goes from North-West to South-East, to East, and then back to North-West. One of the main discussions in this essay is about the juxtaposition of nostalgic geography and our inner compass, compared to what is real. I found this idea really interesting because of how people attach their identities or periods of their lives to certain places. London is a city that has faced a lot of this throughout literary history and I enjoyed reading the speaker’s perspective of London and all of the changes that have happened within it since he moved there.
I can see this book becoming extremely popular and for good reason. The essays are all extremely thoughtful and complex, whilst still being timely and relatable. If you’re into essay collections and London fictions, this one’s for you.
Thank you to Jordan and Influx Press for sending me a copy of Lucifer Over London.