In 1994, Sarah Lyall, who used to cover the literary beat forThe New York Times, moved to London, “for love,” as she writes in her tartly provocative book about the British. She moved in with, and later married, Robert McCrum, then editorial director of Faber and Faber, and resumed her work for theTimesas a reporter for its London bureau. Her first story in her new role was published in December 1994—a piece about the “high-concept Manhattan” DKNY store that had recently opened in Bond Street, “like a nose-ringed teenager crashing a stately garden party,” which is much how she presents herself in her book.
Lyall’s relationship with McCrum and with her adopted country immediately gave her pieces for theTimesa different slant and tone from what one usually expects of the foreign correspondent, whose posting is temporary, for whom home is elsewhere, and who can write about the natives with the curious and amused detachment of the traveler who will soon move on. Lyall’s dispatches from London—on such topics as class, the royals, British eccentrics, the literary scene, the national toleration of drunkenness and terrible teeth, the perverse English affection for wet and blustery seaside holidays—have always had an interesting edge to them, a hint of exasperation beneath their jaunty surface. She writes about Britain not as a neutral foreign observer but as someone who’d dearly like to set the place to rights with a course of psychotherapy.
I know that feeling, having myself moved, for much the same reason, from London to Seattle in 1990. The investment of the expatriate in his or her host country is very different from that of the roving correspondent. Though always perceived as a foreigner by the natives, you have a permanent stake in their politics and society. Your children—the natural consequence of moving for love—go to their schools, speak in their accent, and acquire their manners and customs. What seemed charming and novel to you as a visitor can quickly tire when you’re a lifetime resident. However you may fancy your abilities as a chameleon, the inside of your head remains obstinately wedded to assumptions and prejudices acquired in its country of origin. Relatively small differences in humor, vocabulary, pronunciation, and etiquette—and especially humor—serve to daily remind the Briton in America and the American in Britain of their alien status. The longer one stays, the more jarring are these reminders of one’s uprootedness: just when you’re feeling most at home, an encounter at the supermarket checkout or an exchange at the dinner table confronts you with the bleak fact that you’re a stranger here.
That sense of inescapable estrangement from the society in which she lives permeates Lyall’s book. “Britain,” she writes, “is an impossible subject…. Things here are so coded, so unstraightforward, so opaque, so easy to misinterpret.” She doesn’t disappoint. There’s plenty of misinterpretation here, but also sufficient truth …