ON the final page of her new novel, Linda Grant acknowledges that the origins of A Stranger City go back many years, to 1992 when she stood at the grave of an unknown woman who had drowned herself in the Thames. The woman was the subject of a TV documentary about paupers’ funerals and Grant, then a freelance journalist, was writing about it for The Times.

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“I’m fairly sure this woman was a rough sleeper, middle-aged, somewhere in her forties, but she had not been identified. No one on the streets recognised the artist’s impression. She had drowned herself in April but the funeral in East London was not until Christmas Eve,” recalls Grant, whose novel begins with a TV crew filming the burial of an unknown woman who had drowned herself in the Thames. It is a miserable February day, in 2016, a day that is “ashiver.”

Recalling the funeral, Grant says: “It was the most eerie, extraordinary day, very foggy and very cold. It was explained that paupers’ graves went in in tiers. The only thing on the grave was this mark, this plaque with ‘DB’ and a number – I can’t remember what it was – and I was told she could not be cremated because of possible DNA evidence.”

One of the UK's most accomplished novelists, Liverpool-born Grant, 68, has written five non-fiction books and seven novels, winning the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000 and the Lettre Ulysses Prize for Literary Reportage in 2006. Her superb novel The Clothes on Their Backs was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, winning the 2008 South Bank Show Literature Award. In 2017, her most recent work, The Dark Circle, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

The funeral stayed with Grant long after she had filed her article. “I never ever forgot that burial," she says when we speak at her north London home, where she lives alone. "I never really thought what use I would make of it – after all, it’s nearly 30 years ago. I didn’t even have a copy of the piece I wrote but through a Facebook friend of a friend someone tracked it down for me, which meant I had the name of the programme maker so I contacted her through Google.”

She told Grant the woman buried on that desolate morning had never been identified. “It was so unusual it being a woman. To pass through life leaving no trace seemed the most mysterious condition. That was my starting point. Yet when I began writing A Stranger City, I had no idea who this woman was. I hadn’t a clue about her so I was making up a character without knowing who she was. It was always open, the possibility that she would remain unknown.” The woman does not remain unidentified in A Stranger City, in which the lives of a group of characters – Pete, a policeman, Alan, a documentary filmmaker and Chrissie, an Irish nurse – are touched by her death. It is also a portrait of the city, any large city. A profoundly moving novel, angry about the hypocrisy of the broken times we live in, it is also about the meaning of home, and as Grant’s publishers point out, “the day after tomorrow.”

As ever with a Grant novel, there is humour and revelations about characters through the clothes they wear – Alan first spots his future wife, “a high-stepping woman,” remarks his father, wearing a violet trilby hat with an emerald feather, while Chrissie carries “a really cheap-looking pink handbag.” Off-duty, dandyish Pete sports chestnut-coloured Doc Martens.

Physical descriptions of people’s clothes, as she acknowledges, are one of her leitmotifs. “Not fashion, clothes,” says Grant, whose non-fiction books include The Thoughtful Dresser, “the thinking woman’s guide to our relationship with what we wear.” Today, Grant, who usually wears “black things” is a positive ray of sunshine in a striking yellow maxi-dress.

A Stranger City is probably destined to be labelled Brexit literature, although the B-word is mentioned only once. She began writing it in the autumn of 2016 unsure what the novel would be about. “But then I never know; I just start writing,” says Grant, whose novels’ settings have ranged from a portrayal of life in the new land of Israel (When I Lived in Modern Times), to student life in the early Seventies (Upstairs at the Party) and postwar London (The Dark Circle).

In the summer of 2016, Grant overheard a distressing conversation on a train, as does Alan in her novel, an ugly scene in which a young man graphically accused a young woman of sexual incontinence at parties, the details of which we’ll avoid in a family newspaper. “Both of them got off the train and as I walked away she was just standing there crying. Obviously, she did not go missing but I decided to write about that conversation from Alan’s point of view. The funeral and that incident on the train somehow merged and became my starting point.”

Grant has lived in London for more than 30 years. She moved to a smaller flat, which has views of the Shard, in 2013. The question of what makes home exercises her imagination. She often returns to Liverpool, where she grew up, the elder of two daughters of Jewish immigrants, and recently revisited their old house. Her mother’s family came from Kiev, her father’s from Russian-occupied Poland. She’s written an affecting memoir, Remind Me Who I Am, Again, about her late mother’s dementia and how information hidden for decades was suddenly revealed as her memory declined.

While Grant was embarking on The Stranger City, her nephew and his wife bought a house very near the railway line I’ve just travelled on. “I began really thinking about home and, of course, Brexit and railway lines, and what use railway lines could be put to. It was a lot of inchoate ideas but I really did not want to write a Brexit novel. I had no sense of what was going to happen but it seemed that Britain was becoming a more xenophobic country and I could write about that. I really wanted to write about people going about their lives, being impacted by this and reality changing around them.

“When I write a novel I never know what I’m doing. I just push forward. I’m always surprising myself. With every book I don’t know what I am going to do until I’ve done it and the characters have developed. At the moment, I haven’t got another idea although I finished A Stranger City last October. I’ve had ideas and they haven’t worked. In a strange way, I’m waiting for the reaction to this book. I feel I’m in two types of limbo – Brexit, about which I have a very bad feeling; the other is how this book will be received. I’m anxious. Brexit has so undermined our certainties, rotting our parliamentary system.”

Which brings us to Dickens. I tell her that her book is Dickensian in its breadth, ambition and glorious cast of characters. That, she says, is the greatest compliment I could pay her. She wrote her MA thesis on Dickens’s cinematic techniques in Bleak House, which she believes to be the greatest 20th century novel – though written in the 19th century – of any city.

Were London and the river that runs through it always to be major characters in A Stranger City?

“Yes,” she exclaims. “When you write about individual lives, the inner dynamic of people affected by the lives of their families and friends, they could be anywhere. Once you start writing about London you have atomisation and coincidence because people’s lives are always crossing each other even if they don’t know it. Lives intersect, there’s a shifting pattern of connection as you pass through the city although you live in your own little bubble. People flatshare, they move on, they lose touch.

“I’m fascinated by missing person alerts on Twitter because you never find out what happens. Recently I was following one. The person was found but I kept thinking ‘what was the story?’ I talked to a policeman about missing persons and he said: ‘People never want their story told. You never find out the answer.’”

Well, DB – number unknown's story has finally been told, beautifully.

A Stranger City, by Linda Grant, published by Virago on May 02, £16.99.