PARADISE CITY by Elizabeth Day is a work of literary fiction that strictly-commercial readers won’t hate. Though not traditionally plot driven, the crux of the story hinges on a murder.
Day never ceases to amaze me with her masterful descriptions of the world around her. She is keenly observant, and it seems as though she can find a new angle for everything–showing her readers life anew. From the “reassurance of anonymity, the cocoon of safety offered by the standardised semi-luxury of faux leather and freshly spritzed white orchids in pots,” and a “room filled with a muted light, the colour of an unwashed dishcloth,” to “silent anxieties, released like dandelion spores into the warm summer air,” Day’s writing is refreshingly lyrical.
Day can be anyone she wants to be, and you believe her. I first realized this when reading her tragically honest voice written through an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s in Home Fires. Day continues to prove her natural ability to delve into a character’s psyche as she presents her reader with four very different individuals with four distinct voices–Howard, Esme, Beatrice, and Carol.
Howard, a self-made millionaire, who feels both entitled and shockingly insecure, finds himself unfulfilled and lost since his family fell apart following his daughter, Ada’s disappearance. Howard meets Beatrice, a hotel maid, while treating himself to a night at the Mayfair Rotunda, where he sexually assaults her. In the following weeks, Howard learns that Beatrice is a refugee from Uganda, who sought asylum from her country’s strict laws against homosexuals. He also learns that she is smart and hard-working when she blackmails him into hiring her for a full-time salaried job in his company. Then there is Esme, the reporter who connects with Howard–she understands and has lived through loss. Howard allows Esme an exclusive interview regarding his missing child, just before her remains are found. It is the fourth character, Carol who finds Ada’s bones buried beneath her neighbor’s jasmine. Carol, who has just lost her life partner, finds an unlikely friend in Howard, when he comes looking for answers. The memorial for Ada that finally gives closure to her loved ones, is the final thread that brings these characters together at the end of the novel, in a celebration of life as they each move past tragedy.
Unlike it is presented in the jacket copy, it is not London that brings these four people together, but instead tragedy. At the opening of the novel, each needed an awakening, each needed a nudge, and they all needed to grow in some way. Day has created a wonderful commentary on the overlap and tension between sameness and difference and the power of perspective.
I only had three major issues with this novel, and all of them regard the publisher, not the author. First off, the jacket copy does not do this novel justice–it only represents the first four chapters. The copy should inspire potential readers to buy the book and want to learn more about the story, not just outline the first twenty pages. Along the same lines, I think the title misrepresents this book. The story itself isn’t particularly driven by London, but I also can’t say that I have ever heard it referred to as “Paradise City.” And lastly, the cover design is horrendous. It looks like a children’s book, which is expected since it came from the UK, and most UK designs don’t have to be good since reading is already an enormous part of their culture. But Bloomsbury US just slapped the color blue on the front (because blue covers tend to sell the best here) and called it a day (no pun intended).
I will end with a caveat to the potential reader. We don’t ever learn what really happened to Ada, why she was killed, why she was transported from place to place, or anything more about her. That’s not the point of the story–it’s not really what matters.
Oh, and it helps to know what Ribena is and the difference between Public schools here and there!