It’s always a bit weird reading a book set in the place you live, and I realise I seem to avoid it. I’m not bothered about escapism at all, that’s not why – I prefer growly realism in fiction. But still, books set in London rarely make their way onto my reading pile. Underground Fugue by Margot Singer was different because it’s published by Melville House who rarely (if ever – hello, The Argonauts) make a bad book, and because it’s set against the backdrop of the 2005 London bombings, which isn’t a topic I’ve come across in a novel before. I’ve read plenty of fiction set in the aftermath of 9/11, but have never read any centred on the London attacks. It felt somehow important. Plus, I read the first page, which is always a good test for a book, and found Singer’s prose awesomely striking.
Underground Fugue opens with Ester, who has just landed in London from New York. You don’t know much about Ester’s grief at this point, but somehow you can sense it in the writing. She has come to London to take care of her dying mother, a responsibility that is all the more disturbing to Ester given she is completely capsized over the death of her teenage son. Moving into her mother’s house, the rhythm of their existence is slow and pained, almost static. In another novel these sections might be the parts you skip over, but Singer’s language is enough to keep you reading; it creates an atmosphere that is necessary against the parts of the book that are about living rather than dying, about normal life carrying on. These parts come in the form of Ester’s mother’s neighbour, Javad, an Iranian scientist who lives with his teenage son. Ester comes across as cold and blank when she is in contact with her new neighbours; perhaps the proximity to a boy roughly the same age as her dead son makes it hard for her to communicate. But over time she develops a closeness with Javad, a budding friendship that breaks up the monotony of her grief and offers a bit of relief in the narrative.
“Singer’s novel travels up and down the scale of sorrow, reflecting the musical and psychological connotations of her title… This haunting story… feels suspended in a murky state between memory and presence, happiness and despair.”
– The Washington Post
The conflict in the book takes the shape of Javad’s son, Amir, who likes to spend his time with his mates exploring the unexplored parts of the city, places like construction sites, cranes, underground tunnels and abandoned drains. Ester doesn’t trust Amir. He is surly, moody, and unapproachable and she’s unsettled by him. As her suspicions about his activities grow, we see life moving closer towards the 7th of July 2005, the day of the bombings.
There is an added dimension to the novel; while all this is happening, Ester’s mother Lonia is on her deathbed, pumped full of morphine. Her thoughts drift back to WWII, to when she and her family fled the Nazis in Czechoslovakia. She is visited at her bedside by elderly Jewish women, bringing with them memories of the holocaust. Their very presence cements the idea of ethnic violence. You know what’s coming, and you know the far-reaching implications it will have, but you also sense the tangible threat of terror after 911. It’s all handled very delicately and very powerfully through Singer’s prose.
“The characters… are constructed with depth and richness… Singer’s London emerges as a place of missed connections, miscommunications and misinterpretations.”
– New York Times Book Review
The book’s structure adds to its force. It’s nothing particularly new but it really works – although Ester is the main focus, the chapters switch back and forth between the four main characters so as a reader you get to see all the nuances of an incredibly complex and quietly frightening situation. That, and the familiarity of the setting (reading it as a Londoner) – you come away feeling slightly unnerved and massively aware of what an integral and significant part of the city’s history the 2005 attacks were, and also how recent they were. I’ve been in London for 9 years, so I wasn’t here in 2005, but reading Underground Fugue it feels like it happened more recently.
Although a slight sense of doom is probably not what anyone is looking for in a novel, especially not these days, Underground Fugue is a brilliant read. The reward comes from Singer’s writing, and from understanding that the story it tells is an important one.
Underground Fugue by Margot Singer was published by Melville House on 4 May 2017 (£12.99, paperback, 9781911545040)