This novel is very interesting as the story-line of the main character, Matthew Halland, is interspersed with stories of other people and other times. He is an architect, which allows the story to be infused with a sense of place with intricate and heavily detailed views of London, its history and its people. You learn a considerable bit about the history of the city through the detail of this novel.
On the surface the novel would seem to be about Matthew’s failed marriage, his relationship with his daughter and ultimately finding a new love. But Matthew’s wandering thoughts introduce other times and historic figures. This novel tells the story of the city through this mindful observation of an architect’s surroundings and the introduction of the history of space and place. A historic view of London unfolds here.
Time and historical space/place drive much of what is written about here. A deeper meaning involves the individual lives that play upon the various historical stages that are a living and breathing city that is constantly in motion. Peopled by individuals who love, have ambition, strive for meaning and ultimately pass from the scene for the next generation to interpret a slightly different version of London. A London that is a changed city but with history visible just below the surface. Scrape off a bit here, and there is the London of the Blitz. A little more there, and Queen Victoria appears. Still more, and the leaning brick wall of a Georgian mansion reveals itself.
Here is a photographic comparison of old and new London:
The historical references lead to an understanding that while an individual is mortal, a great city lives on, always with the next generation moving things along. Particularly notable is the description of construction crews moving bodies from an old church yard for re-internment elsewhere. That patch of once hallowed ground being re-purposed for modern convenience and usage. The property is, no doubt, now too pricey to waste on the dead.
A quote from the thoughts of the main character, Halland, nicely sums up much of what this novel is trying to get at, I think: “For this is the city in which everything is simultaneous. There is no yesterday, nor tomorrow, merely weather, decay and destruction.” I think this means that the various peoples of the history of London are players upon its stage. That the city is always there and the people come and go. They are always leaving a layer or two of history with every generation. The city they serve is seemingly immortal and their part is to keep it a going concern during their lifetimes and hand it over to the next generation.