PARADISE CITY BY ELIZABETH DAY
the guardian 16 May 2015
Elizabeth Day’s third novel is her most accomplished yet. Paradise City possesses a propulsion that her earlier novels, for all their emotional courage, lacked. The narrative is divided between four interweaving characters: the self-made millionaire Sir Howard Pink; Beatrice Kizza, a Ugandan asylum seeker; Carol Hetherington, an unassuming widow; and Esme Reade, a young journalist. Day is also a journalist and, unsurprisingly, word perfect on newspaper office politics. Reade observes of the chief feature writer: “Cathy defended her bylines in much the same way as 16th-century merchants protected their treasures by building fortified castles against pirate invasions.”
The most impressive and intriguing character by far, however, is Beatrice. Day’s portrayal of her is complex and frequently surprising: after she is assaulted by a man, she reflects: “How she hated men like that, men who believed they could take what they wanted and treat her like meat. She feels humiliated – not for herself but for them that they could be so pathetic.” The reasons Beatrice left Uganda are both an effective plot device and part of a moving and nuanced backstory. There is a subtlety to Day’s characterisation that saves it from being patronising, while the author’s willingness to put a marginalised figure centre stage recalls Kerry Hudson’s novel Thirst.
Paradise City is not purely concerned with those who live on the edges of society, and Day has obviously had great fun with the portrayal of Pink. His love of hotels, his taste in clothes and women, as well as his insecurities, are all carefully charted. She is particularly good on his attraction to his second wife: “His lust for Claudia had always, peculiarly, been grounded in hatred for all that she stood for. He needed her brittleness, her dead-eyed ambition, her naked desire for status and wealth, as affirmation of what he had always suspected of himself: that he was worth no more, that if you drew back the curtain there was nothing there but a small boy.”
Day is a consistently careful writer and Paradise City is a considered work, but occasionally one wishes she would relax a bit and rein in superfluous detail. We already have a firm idea of Reade’s lifestyle, body and attitude without Day explaining that she wears “dirty white trainers” to walk to work before “slipping her stockinged feet into a pair of mildly uncomfortable patent-leather courts from Marks & Spencer”. This occasional tendency towards over-explication is more than made up for, though, by strange and vivid observations, such as a woman’s crush on an office colleague dissipating because “she can smell him – a ferric scent like an open tin of soup”.
Day is also astute about the way in which death robs people of their individuality, writing of a dead woman: “The entirety of her, the sheer beauty of that crazily complex inherited construct had gone, had been snatched away, stolen, extinguished, murdered.” Ultimately, Paradise City demonstrates the same humanity that was seen in her previous novel, Home Fires. Day has an admirable ability to explore uncomfortable issues (child abuse, grief and murder) without reaching for easy conclusions.