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Victoria Park by Gemma Reeves book review – touching and tasting East London

This debut novel by Gemma Reeves is a dreamy montage of lives connected by delight in the small things while coming to terms with irreversible change.

Set over the course of 12 months, Gemma Reeves takes us on episodic, dream-like encounters with the lives of 12, seemingly unrelated people. As the reader wafts in and out of their homes, snapshots of lives filled with the trials, tribulations and triumphs familiar to all of us are built up. 

But,  they all have one thing in common: Victoria Park. Coalescing around the park  – which becomes a town centre, community hub, and place to run away from and to – this area of East London is painted as a vibrant, urban community dealing with the trials, tribulations and triumphs that a year brings to all of their lives. Characters are related sometimes by blood, others by lust, and some simply meet briefly in a coffee shop.

We are first introduced to Mona and Wolfie, both kindertransport children who escaped Nazi Germany, they met aged 19 at a dance in Mile End then married three months later. Mona is losing her memory, becoming confused and forgetting things, as she wanders away from their home on the edge of the park. After sixty-five years of marriage, Wolfie my no longer be able to look after her. 

Later we meet a family created by a night of passion, extracted from the Italian countryside and thrown into the sometimes grotty East End of London.  A nearby couple embarks on IVF treatment, each with different fears about what this next stage of their life may bring. 

The exploration of sexuality, self-love and desire is an unexpected but most welcome element and adds moments of real honesty to create multi-faceted characters. There’s a teenage boy discovering his sexuality, exploring his interactions with a lovely girl while trying on her dresses, and a wife withdraws into herself through an affair. 

It is hard not to feel sad that a violent tragedy that touches, in one way or another, almost all of the characters is not resolved – we all want to see a villain be held accountable for their actions – but this might not be realistic. Sometimes awful things happen, and life rolls on and the characters learn to process it. 

The references to all of our favourite East End haunts is truly delightful, as we follow the characters on shopping trips to Whitechapel market, buying Beigels on Brick Lane and flowers in Columbia Road market. This can sometimes feel a little like box-checking of TripAdvisor rated spots, but it’s made up for in the enjoyment that comes with reading an accurate portrayal of our favourite places. Plus, it would be cynical to deny the Beigel Shop is *the* place for beigels, and Columbia Road *the* place for flowers: where else would one go? 

This is a book for all the senses, with the joy of eating as an unexpected but much-welcomed treat. From the Italian Deli where wheels of cheese are lovingly peeled to the crumbly croissants consumed in over-priced coffee shops to the cinnamon buns from Rinkoff’s bakery, the tastes and aromas these places evoke give the sense of home that only food can. 

Maintaining the food theme, the naming of Joe and Luca’s band, The Broken Biscuits, fits nicely in its summation of people who may be faulty but still worth a dunk. 

If you love East London, food, or people, this one is for you. It’s a delight is in the sensory detail, in the evocation of the feeling of being touched, of tasting something delicious, or of seeing a place that fills us with a sense of home. This is a delicious book to read sat under a tree in Victoria Park – just remember to look up at the people around you.

Victoria Park by Gemma Reeves is published in paperback on 5th August, £8.99 RRP, available at the Brick Lane Bookshop.

If you enjoyed this, read our review of murder mystery Turn a Blind Eye by Vicky Newham.

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