Veiled roman-à-clef novels of this kind are routinely hyped by their publishers as being certain to cause uproar and mayhem. Often they do nothing of the kind and pass almost unnoticed. Rachel Johnson’s acerbic and well-observed bitch-up of life on a Notting Hill communal garden justifies the copious pre-publicity, and I can report that early copies are already playing very badly in the yoga and pilates classes of W. 11, and in the numerous organic food shops and boutiques where the real-life counterparts of her characters assemble. By the time the schools go back in September, and the full Notting Hill brigade has remarshalled in the hood after the summer, the lynch mobs will be gathering and it might be prudent of Johnson to skip town for a while.
With her magpie eye for local detail and a couple of cracking good jokes per page, Notting Hell is snappy, witty, definitely clever, shallow, heartless and hugely readable. As a former resident of this area, with which Rachel Johnson evidently has a love-hate relationship, I can confirm that every last landmark butcher’s shop, restaurant, bar and street is noted and name-checked, plus thinly disguised portraits of the personal trainers, macrobiotic dieticians and acupuncturists that thrive in the neighbourhood. She is spot-on, too, with her descriptions of the sports days, fireworks parties and garden committees of these stucco-faced garden squares. In Johnson’s world view, house prices have taken off ‘like a Harrier jet’, owing to an influx of gruesome new residents, mostly fund managers and hedge funders, who are the main butt of her humour. Her most savage barbs are reserved for super-rich investment bankers, especially when American, and their dysfunctional, fitness-mad, eco-obsessed, fully Filipino-staffed wives. Easy targets? Maybe. She is softer, and even slightly ingratiating, towards ‘Notting Hill’s HRHs’, as she dubs them, the W. 11 power couples: Richard Curtis and Emma Freud, Matthew Freud and Elizabeth Murdoch, Sebastian and Veronica Faulks, William Seighart and Molly Dineen, all of whom appear as themselves, along with the leggy supermodel Belle McDonald, whom I take to be Elle Macpherson. So the author evidently wants to stay on five party lists at least.
If the Richard Curtis Notting Hill film was a feel-good exercise, and A. A. Gill’s novel Sap Rising (was I the only person in Britain to enjoy his putrid take on a similar garden square?) was an exercise in squalor, then Rachel Johnson’s Notting Hell is a vision of modern vanity, neurosis, competitiveness and seven-figure bonuses. ‘Within the zone,’ she writes of her communal garden, ‘there are any number of warring tribes, but basically, the main factions here boil down to families with young children and no dogs, families with grown children and dogs, couples with dogs and no children, gays and Americans.’ Each group secretly hates every other group. The strength of this novel is that it powers along, sneering in all directions with chilly brilliance; its weakness is a shortage of sympathetic characters to care about. Everyone is pushy and on the make. A carrion crow in the garden ‘hops away and eyes us with a steely resolve I haven’t seen since Trish Dodd Noble was trying to get Melissa into St Paul’s Girls’ School’. I began to long for some slightly less calculating players in the mix, but maybe, as in Sodom and Gomorrah, there are simply none to be found in Notting Hill, so perhaps it is unfair to blame Rachel Johnson for that omission.