World Book Day 2024: 7 great London novels and their first lines - Charles Dickens to Zadie Smith

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From Charles Dickens to Zadie Smith, John le Carré to Monica Ali, these London authors know how to start a novel.

I would argue there is no greater city in the world in which to set a novel than London.

Its long history, culture and diversity are made for drama and comedy.

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To mark World Book Day 2024 (March 7), here are just seven of the many classic London novels, along with their first lines.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens (1843)

Marley was dead: to begin with.

A Tale of Two Cities may be the obvious Dickens choice, but this elegant joke opens his Christmas classic

Absolute Beginners, by Colin MacInnes (1959)

It was with the advent of the Laurie London era that I realised the whole teenage epic was tottering to doom.

This chronicle of the emerging post-war youth culture opens with a reference to an east London child star and a note of drama around teenhood. In 1986, director Julian Temple released a film adaptation with a David Bowie theme song.

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, by John le Carré (1974)

The truth is, if old Major Dover hadn’t dropped dead at Taunton races Jim would never have come to Thursgood’s at all.

It won't have been accidental that le Carré's masterpiece begins with "The truth is..." when the truth proves so slippery for the cigarette stained spies of The Circus.

London Fields, by Martin Amis (1989)

This is a true story but I can’t believe it’s really happening. It’s a murder story, too. I can’t believe my luck. And a love story. (I think), of all strange things, so late in the century, so late in the goddamned day.

Another claim to truth as this influential black comedy sets off with a swagger.

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Zadie Smith, Charles Dickens and Hanif Kureishi have all written classic London novels.Zadie Smith, Charles Dickens and Hanif Kureishi have all written classic London novels.
Zadie Smith, Charles Dickens and Hanif Kureishi have all written classic London novels.

The Buddha of Suburbia, by Hanif Kureishi (1990)

My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost. I am often considered to be a funny kind of Englishman, a new breed as it were, having emerged from two old histories. But I don’t care – Englishman I am (though not proud of it), from the South London suburbs and going somewhere.

Kureishi's classic exploration of what it is to be a Londoner gets straight to the point.

White Teeth, by Zadie Smith (2000)

Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway. At 06.27 hours on 1 January 1975, Alfred Archibald Jones was dressed in corduroy and sat in a fume-filled Cavalier Musketeer Estate face down on the steering wheel, hoping the judgement would not be too heavy upon him.

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A suicide attempt is quite a way to begin a novel but the day does not go as Archie Jones anticipates.

Brick Lane, by Monica Ali (2003)

An hour and forty-five minutes before Nazneen’s life began – began as it would proceed for quite some time, that is to say uncertainly – her mother Rupban felt an iron fist squeeze her belly.

From the first page, there can be no doubting the challenges that will face Nazneen.

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