Andrea Levy, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Headline Review, historical fiction, Jamaica, London, Publisher, Setting

‘Small Island’ by Andrea Levy


Fiction – paperback; Headline Review; 530 pages; 2004.

Small Island is one of those books that has been sitting in my reading queue for two or three years. I was prompted to dig it out when Simon wrote a rather glowing review of it. The deal was cemented when several more of you chipped in on this post and said it would make a good read for a long-haul flight. I promptly packed it in my hand luggage and began to read it on that horrendously long plane ride to Australia.

The story is a complete delight from start to finish. It’s set in London in 1948 but jumps back in time to the Second World War (and earlier) when Jamaican men joined the British forces to fight for the Mother country. There are four main characters — Brits Queenie and Bernard Bligh, and Jamaicans Hortense and Gilbert Joseph — whose individual stories are told in separate sections. The 1948 narrative links them together.

The story begins with Hortense, a highly strung young Jamaican woman, arriving in London to be reunited with her husband, Gilbert. Former air serviceman Gilbert had immigrated months earlier in order to pave the way for their new life together in a new land. But when Hortense finds him living in a tiny ill-equipped room in a lodging house her high expectations are rudely lowered.

But little does Hortense know that the lodging house is presided over by a very fair and open-minded landlady, Queenie Bligh, who ignores her fellow neighbours who don’t approve of her accepting black tenants. Although Queenie doesn’t have much choice — her husband never returned from the War and she has no other means of supporting herself — she’s determined to treat the Jamaicans that live under her roof as equals.

For Hortense and Gilbert it could have been much worse.

Small Island (the title, I assume, could equally apply to both Britain and Jamaica) shows how circumstances and history thrust these two women together, and how the partners they marry come to change their lives too. It adds up to a wonderful historical family-type drama that perfectly captures what it must have been like to live in post-war London when the cultural make-up of the city was undergoing rapid change.

What I appreciated most was Levy’s ability to show the alarming racism that occurred in England at the time. Despite the fact that Jamaica was part of the British Empire few Brits knew where Jamaica was located (several characters believe it’s in “Africa somewhere”) and fewer still wanted to see black faces on the street when Caribbean immigrants started landing on British shores. (There are parallels here with Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners, which gives voice to the Caribbean immigrant experience in the 1950s.)

They speak the same language, and yet can never be understood on the streets of London. Or, as Gilbert points out in one stand-out scene towards the end of the novel, they had fought a common enemy but were not treated as equals.

There’s a lot here, too, about the Second World War and the role that Jamaican men played in it, an intriguing slice of history that’s not widely known.

Levy is, of course, a master storyteller but she never preaches or comes across as if she is pushing a message; there’s a lightness of touch that belies the seriousness of the content. She has an eye for detail and an ear for dialogue. Her characters are believable — the uppity Hortense, the progressive Queenie, the striving-to-always-do-better Gilbert, and the stubborn-but-weak Bernard — and so very human.

Small Island won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2004, the Whitbread Book of the Year in 2004 and the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 2005. It has also been adapted into a two-part television drama which screened on BBC1 last month.

1001 books, 1001 Books to read before you die, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Penguin Modern Classics, Reading Projects, Sam Selvon, Setting

‘The Lonely Londoners’ by Sam Selvon

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 160 pages; 2006.

One grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if it is not London at all but some strange place on another planet, Moses Aloetta hop on a number 46 bus at the corner of Chepstow Road and Westbourne Grove to go to Waterloo to meet a fellar who was coming from Trinidad on the boat-train.

So begins Sam Selvon’s bittersweet story about a group of West Indian immigrants living in 1950s London. It’s a truly evocative look at a city through the jaded eyes of a black man, Moses Aloetta, a veteran Londoner who somewhat reluctantly welcomes newcomers from his homeland and shows them the ropes. (“I don’t know these people at all,” he tells one of his friends, “yet they coming to me as if I is some liaison officer, and I catching my arse as it is, how could I help them out?”)

But having earned a reputation as a “good fellar to contact, that he would help them get place to stay and work to do”, Moses finds himself taking Henry “Sir Galahad” Oliver under his wing. Galahad is irrepressibly upbeat and optimistic; he’s also thick-skinned, turning up in the dead of a London winter wearing nothing but “an old grey tropical suit and a pair of watchekong” (crepe-soled shoes). He doesn’t even have any luggage with him.

The Lonely Londoners follows the ups and downs of Galahad, and others like him, who arrive in London, thinking the roads are paved with gold, but then find that life is tough, that everything is expensive and that the white population is wary of black faces (or “spades” as they are called throughout this book) despite the “open door” policy of letting citizens from the colonies settle in Britain.

There’s no real plot because this is essentially a collection of vignettes about various immigrants and the different ways in which they adapt and change to suit their new environment. It’s quite dark and depressing in places, as you come to experience each character’s slow dawning that London is not the place they thought it would be, that it’s a bleak, alien town, far removed from the sunnier climes from which they came.

There’s a wonderful scene near the beginning of the novel which captures this sudden sense of alienation perfectly. Galahad is braving the morning rush hour for the first time and when he sees so many people bustling about the tube station “a feeling of fright and loneliness come on him all of a sudden”.

The sun shining, but Galahad never see the sun look like how it looking now. No heat from it, it just there in the sky like a force-ripe orange. When he look up the colour of the sky so chocolate it make him more frighten. It have a kind of melancholy aspect about the morning that making him shiver. He have a feeling is about seven o’clock in the evening: when he look at clock on top of a building he see it only half-past ten in the morning.

Anyone who has experienced a London winter for the first time will know this feeling well; the nights stretch into 17-hour extravaganzas and you’re lucky if you see any daylight at all if you work in an office. This feels alien enough without having to worry about where you’re going to live and work and whether you’ve got enough money for the bus fare!

Selvon describes this netherworld existence, including the cramped bedsits, visits to the dole queue (“a kind of place where hate and disgust and avarice and malice and sympathy and sorrow and pity all mix up”) and the liming (a Caribbean expression for “hanging out”), so beautifully it’s easy to get caught up in the lives depicted here.

But the best part is seeing how the city eventually works its charms on them so that, in the end, they find themselves feeling at home, or, as Galahad puts it, “when the sweetness of summer get in him he say he would never leave the old Brit’n as long as he live”.

As you will have noticed from the quotations I’ve used, the book is written in a Jamaican patois, or, as Shusheila Nasta writes in the introduction, “a creolized voice” which lends it a lovely, intimate, Calypso rhythm, and a sense that you really are in the heads of these Caribbean immigrants.

The Lonely Londoners is part of a trilogy; I’m looking forward to reading the next two as soon as I am able.

‘The Lonely Londoners’ by Sam Selvon, first published in 1956, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as “one of the first attempts to narrate the life of black Caribbean men in London during the wave of mass migration to Britain during the 1950s”.