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Review: Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, by Patrick Hamilton


Pages: 511
Original date of publication: 1935
My copy: 2008 (NYRB Classics)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: Joseph Fox Books, January 2012

Patrick Hamilton covers very similar themes in his books. His plots are comprised of characters from the lowest strata of London society: drunks, prostitutes, etc. Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky is set in and around a central London pub called The Midnight Bell. Bob is a waiter who falls in love with a young prostitute named Jenny and loses all his money in the process; Ella is a barmaid in love with Bob who nonetheless begins a relationship with an older man.

The story consists of three novellas, each of which takes you on a tour of the characters’ stories, offering, as it does so, alternate looks at the same situation within the same time frame. The shape shifting is what makes the plot of the book interesting, and each of these characters is unique in their own right. Hamilton is skilled at depicting the nuances of each character, even if their motives aren’t completely obvious (but that would take the fun out of reading, anyways). “The Midnight Bell” is based on Hamilton’s experience working as a bartender and later falling in love with a prostitute; as such, Bob seems to be the most well rounded of the three. Still, Hamilton clearly understood the characters and had empathy for all of them. You know it won’t end well for any of these characters, but you continue to read anyways because they’re so well rounded. I can see why Hamilton’s style has been called “Dickensian,” but in a way his style is very different from Dickens’s.

As the novel progresses, we get an intimate look at lower-class London life in the 1930s and the milieu of the culture of the era. For example, at the time the novel was published, there were a large number of Jewish immigrants who fled to England from other parts of Europe, and the novel reflects the anti-Semitism of the time period. As such, it harbingers the social consciousness that became so prevalent in his later novels. Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky is an incredibly well written and absorbing collection of stories, one that I enjoyed immensely.

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