World Book Day: 3 of the best books set in London

Highgate Cemetery
Audrey Niffenegger was inspired by Highgate Cemetery ©VisitBritain / Britain on View

On World Book Day, Florence Sheward explores the capital with the help of these three classic and contemporary novels

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger cover
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

In 2004, flushed with success from her debut, The Time Traveler’s Wife, US author Audrey Niffenegger worked as a tour guide at North London’s Highgate Cemetery to research the location for her second book, Her Fearful Symmetry. It was, she would later reveal, a “perfect place to write about: a high-walled secret garden of death”.

The cemetery opened in 1839 and now contains more than 53,000 graves, including philosopher Karl Marx, writer George Eliot and many more. Venture along the adjacent Highgate Hill for a quaint high street dotted with cafés and independent shops.

HIghgate Cemetery in northwest London
HIghgate Cemetery in northwest London. Credit: VisitBritain


Brick Lane by Monica Ali
Brick Lane by Monica Ali cover
Brick Lane by Monica Ali

Monica Ali’s much-hyped 2003 debut, Brick Lane, focuses on an arranged marriage in East London’s Bangladeshi community. The titular lane connects Bethnal Green in the north to Whitechapel in the south, while the central section remains lined with men with menus touting business for the area’s many curry restaurants.

Meanwhile, young East End creatives can be found browsing vintage markets or attending temporary events at The Old Truman Brewery, while the Whitechapel Gallery has been championing the early careers of British artists such as David Hockney and Lucian Freud for more than a century.


Brick Lane in east London
The multicultural Brick Lane in east London. Credit: VisitBritain
Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes
Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes cover
Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes

A great-great-nephew of Rudyard Kipling, author Colin MacInnes was born in South Kensington in 1914 and loved his home city. During his early years, he lived in rooms across the capital and Absolute Beginners was the second in a trilogy of books later republished together as Visions of London.

The book emerged in 1959, the year after the Notting Hill riots when this corner of west London was “nothing more than a stagnating slum”.

Today, the Notting Hill Carnival attracts a million visitors every August bank holiday weekend, while the antiques shops and vintage markets of the gentrified Portobello Road are bustling all year round.

Notting Hill coloured houses
Colin MacInnes set Absolute Beginners in Notting Hill. Credit: VisitBritain/Kiyoshi Sakasai 


For more classic books set in London, see issue 200 of Discover Britain