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There is something inextricable about queerness and city life, as a space of bustling activity and progressive attitudes. So it makes sense that many writers throughout history have set stories with queer protagonists in London. Nowadays it may feel as though London's gay population is disproportionately concentrated in Clapham, but literature shows us that queer fictional characters lived all over town. Here are 10 LGBTQ+ books that I love, and which all use London as a key feature — celebrating the city not only as the backdrop for diverse stories, but a setting that informs and enhances queer lives.
Disbanded Kingdom by Polis Loizou (2018)
"Terry hated the DLR. Said it felt like a toy kicked across the floor by a child. But Oscar only saw a sort of magic in its driverless glide amongst the tower blocks. Its high-treble sound and the lights of the buildings, a journey as a funfair ride. Like travelling inside a giant box TV."
As the front cover attests, Polis Loizou's debut novel could be read as a modern, queer Catcher in the Rye. The protagonist Oscar roams a vivid, dirty and romantic London. He wanders, yearning for male attention, picking up on every sight and sound of the city. He soon becomes infatuated with his wealthy foster mother's literary agent and they enter a confusing, overwhelming affair. In Loizou's book, the city is as diverse and sprawling as Oscar's wayward desire. This is a dynamic, affectionate and realistic portrayal of London where the city isn't just a setting, but a character, shifting and expanding with Oscar. Published in 2018, this book was hardly picked up on by critics — unfair, when it is one of the most vibrant and visceral depictions of being young and queer in London I have ever read.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (2014)
"She loved these walks through London. She seemed, as she made them, to become porous, to soak in detail after detail; or else, like a battery to become charged. Yes, that was it, she thought, as she turned a corner: it wasn't a liquid creeping, it was a tingle, something electric, something produced as if by the friction of her shoes against the streets. She was at her truest, it seemed to her, in these tingling moments."
One of the most relatable features of lesbian icon Sarah Waters' sixth novel is the emphasis on the therapeutic nature of a good stroll around London — apparently as true back in the 1920s as it is in the 2020s. Throughout the book, whenever Frances finds herself overwhelmed by her illicit affair with her family's lodger, she finds consolation in her solitary walks around the city, the pleasure of which Waters describes with detail and accuracy. Some criticism of Waters claims that she writes Victorian relationships anachronistically, pandering to a modern reader's sensibility. But how can we really know what queer relationships were like back then, given how viciously suppressed they were? Surely it is the power and value of contemporary fiction writers like Waters to imbue old-fashioned stories with elements that can bring these characters to life and give them the full queer lives they deserved.
Tiepolo Blue by James Cahill (2022)
"Dulwich, however, is different. An oasis of parks and trees and well-kept Victorian villas in Tudor or Gothic dress, strung out along grass-fringed roads. Dotted along the pavements are little white posts threaded by chains. It doesn’t feel like London at all."
When Cambridge becomes too stifling an environment for art academic Don and his rigid views, he takes up in Dulwich where he is handed a position running a gallery (it's alright for some). Don starts seeing Ben who, thankfully, challenges Don's snobbish ways, and London soon becomes the catalyst for Don's mind opening to possibilities beyond the stuffy rubric of his old Cambridge world. The book is set in the 90s, and I have to wonder how much Cahill projects a post-gentrification 2020s lens onto the story's neighbourhoods. Although, it is certainly a timely novel that I feel could easily be set today as cancel culture, offensive radio rants and acceptability politics fuel the book's tension. As an art critic himself, Cahill successfully injects a level of authenticity to the book and to Don's voice and aesthetic world view. This also begs the question: who from Cahill's art world are the more problematic characters based on?
At Certain Points We Touch by Lauren John Joseph (2022)
"At that time the weekend meant Raymond's Revue Bar on Friday, Bar Music Hall on Saturday and Hoxton Bar and Grill on Sunday, parties to be attended with all the propriety once reserved for the opera, the ballet and the theatre. Was it a compulsion or an obligation, the paralysing fear of missing out, or the desire to get our faces in one more magazine before they all moved online, that drove us so fastidiously out?"
One of the most critically acclaimed fiction books of 2022, Lauren John Joseph's blistering debut sees our narrator Bibby, a trans woman, recall a doomed love story she went through a decade ago. It is a devastating, dizzying read as the characters flit between London, New York and San Francisco, falling in and out of love. Each location shift puts the disparate cities into stronger relief, reflecting and clashing off each other. In the opening chapter set in London, within a matter of scenes we are thrust from parties in Mayfair to walks along the Thames, to UCL, the V&A and the BFI. This itinerant storytelling draws a hyper-realistic, tangible London. Bibby, amidst her emotional turmoil, feels grounded by London and its consistency. When she's here, she knows where and who she is. For all the challenges of city life, there is something relatable about the solid comfort of returning. Our hearts and minds stray across oceans, but London is always there.
Life Mask by Emma Donoghue (2004)
"There was no scarcity of scurrilous wits in London, God knew. Some of them maintained that carnal knowledge between females was impossible — but they kept on writing about these impossibilities nonetheless."
It’s a tale as old as time: Lord weds stage actress. Actress befriends aristocratic widow. Actress and widow become "dear friends". Beau monde society delights in outrageous lesbian scandal! This sure is one for the history buffs, as Donoghue fills all 624 pages of this book with details and delights of 18th-century life. The excitement of the French Revolution brews as Eliza and Anne's own revolutionary love comes under scrutiny from prying eyes in London's political circles. All the while, Eliza struggles with being torn between the fresh air of Oxford and the intensity and sexual freedom of her life in London. In true gay fashion, Donoghue's book is not lacking for drama and she brings the period to life in such a way that will have you wishing for a Bridgerton-esque adaptation!
The New Life by Tom Crewe (2023)
"There had been something delicious about that London summer freedom, as it quite unexpectedly appeared to him; in the feeling that the days were widely open, the city limitless, life noisy and beckoning, all in contrast with the closed, still, sulking provincialism represented by Angelica's family."
It will come as a surprise to no one that Victorian London was not an easy time or place to be queer. In his 2023 novel, historian and scholar Tom Crewe dramatises the agony and strife of two gay men in the early days of the fight for queer liberation in the UK. What makes this book stand out from others in this genre is the emphasis on the plight of women. Whether that is the politically voiceless queer women or the straight women in politically symbiotic marriages with gay men, where neither was afforded the freedom they deserved. While such oppressive times are (mostly) pretty unrecognisable today, the novel uses a recognisable London as its backdrop. Much of the book takes place in Brixton, allowing one amusing interaction where Ellis is asked why he lives in Brixton, to which he responds: "because people think it too far to visit". State-sanctioned homophobia and no Victoria line? Times really were bad. Besides finding liberating respite swimming in the Serpentine (which you can also still do now!), what is so striking about Ellis and John's story is how much of queer life, even in London, had to be lived silently and behind closed doors at that time.
The Bricks that Built the Houses by Kae Tempest (2017)
"She is all London: cocksure, alert to danger, charming, and it flows through her."
Kae Tempest is one of Britain's most iconoclastic, multi-faceted cultural voices, with their work spanning almost every artistic medium. After becoming known for poetry and music, this was Tempest's debut novel and it honours their typical voice, at once raging in its approach to modern life and sensitive to the underbelly of society. The protagonists in this book are as close as we really get to contemporary bohemians, and we first meet them fleeing London under suspicious circumstances. We then go back in time and Tempest draws a historical tapestry of London and how Becky, Harry and Leon ended up here. Interestingly, some find Tempest's prose writing in this book to be too sprawling and wild for a novel, but I think there is something exhilarating about a writer whose passion cannot be contained — is that not how London often feels? This is a modern epic as diverse and unwieldy as London itself.
The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta (2019)
"Be south-east London council estate, a daytime dance floor, his head resting on your shoulder. Be South Beach, Miami, night of water and fire, your head resting on his shoulder."
This is the coming of age book every flamboyant child deserves, and one I certainly wish my school library had held. Dean Atta's YA novel is unique as it is written in verse, the story divided into a sequence of poems. We follow Michael as a child growing up in urban London, to discovering drag at university, into life beyond on his journey to becoming the fabulous Black Flamingo who was waiting to burst out all along. The effusive, flowing language of poetry reflects Michael's desire to live an aesthetically beautiful life and how he feels most authentic when embracing his lavish, queer creativity. Michael is pulled between his social life in London and the more accepting queer world of Brighton. Atta begs the question: is London really a queer haven for everyone, or just a certain few?
Double Booked by Lily Lindon (2022)
"We're at The Familiar, a gay bar in gay Hackney Wick. It is indeed familiar to Soph, who practically moved in here when we all moved to London."
In Lily Lindon's debut, she tells the age-old tale of an innocent young Londoner who goes out in Hackney and experiences an alarming queer awakening. In delightful rom-com mishap style, we see Georgina struggle to balance her very predictable, heterosexual life with her boyfriend alongside her burgeoning queerness, which is fast-tracked by her spontaneous involvement with a lesbian band. She ends up caught in a double life, surreptitiously shifting between Hackney and Hampstead, between being George and Georgina respectively. Lindon lovingly conveys a familiar London, punctuated by restorative walks on the Heath and questionably entertaining gigs in dingy bars. The book is laugh-out-loud funny and evokes the nostalgic romantic comedy of errors from the early 2000s… but with 2020s queer politics! As well as posing important questions about how lifestyle intersects with sexuality, the book is an homage to London and its endless possibilities, and serves as a reminder of how entirely distinct social ecosystems and cultures coexist mere tube rides away (and also how unsettlingly easy it would be to lead a double life here…?)
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1890)
"I determined to go out in search of some adventure. I felt that this grey, monstrous London of ours, with its myriads of people, its sordid sinners and its splendid sins, as you once phrased it, must have something in store for me."
In line with the 19th-century censorship necessary for its publication, Wilde's renowned novel doesn't actually contain any explicit homosexuality. Nevertheless, the writer's queerness pulses through his words and there is no question, in my eyes, that this is a gay book. That said, the London in Dorian Gray is probably not one many of us yearn for. Figures stalk each other in the squares of Mayfair and haunt the streets of west London. The city becomes a dangerous, decrepit site for Gray's demise into misery and turmoil. Despite being quintessentially Victorian, you could do a cynical modern reading of the book comparing Gray's anguish over his appearance to current gay culture in London… The Instagram of Dorian Gray, anyone?