Over the past decade, Andrea Levy has worked her way to the top of the British literary establishment with her thoughtful and troubling novels, which recurrently deal with the Jamaican experience of hardship, be it in the form of the shameful discrimination immigrants have suffered in post-WWII Britain, or, in the case of her latest book, The Long Song (Headline, 2010) through the ignominy of slavery and its repercussions, immediately after it finally came to be abolished.
Born and raised in London, Levy turned to literature only when she was in her late thirties, publishing her first novel, Every Light in the House Burnin’ in 1994. Levy herself has linked this late shift to the fact that, at the time, she failed to find material from English writers that represented her experience, growing up in a predominantly white society as a black English person. Thus, the background to her first three novels was taken, precisely, from her own experience, setting her fiction right at the heart of working-class England in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Always close to the anecdotal, Levy is capable of gesturing towards the general conditions that lie at the bottom of the workings of society through particular situations or circumstances that have great resonance on the reader’s mind.
That much is obvious from her third novel, The Fruit of the Lemon (1999), which depicts the conflict of a hard-working, young professional who is suddenly faced with deeply-rooted racist attitudes in London, both within her working environment in the BBC and in the political tension that arises in the neighborhood where she lives. Faith, Levy’s protagonist, falls into a severe bout of depression that sees her travel to Jamaica, the land of her parents, for the first time. As she faces a whole array of new experiences, she comes to learn a great deal about her family story, but she also undergoes a transformation that is, perhaps, more evident to the reader than to herself.
While Levy was long listed for the Orange Prize in 1996 for her second novel, Never Far from Nowhere, her big success would only arrive in 2004, with Small Island. Set in the midst of World War II both in Britain and Jamaica, this novel maps the lives of four people, two couples, who have been paired by chance more than anything else. Ambitious, expansive and, on the whole, engaging, Small Island proved to be immensely popular among readers and critics alike, meriting Levy the Orange, Whitbread and Commonwealth prizes in one year.
Set in London in 1948, the novel depicts in rich detail the circumstances that lead many West Indians, particularly Jamaicans, to leave their islands behind in favor of a new life in England, and provides an insightful look into the conflicts that awaited these emigrants in the less-than-idyllic pastures of post-war Britain. Through the expert manipulation of narrative structure and voices, Levy manages to render a picture that is far more complex, and far more convincing, than the standard victimization commonly found in texts dealing with the question of immigration. Therein, precisely, lies the novel’s greatest achievement, as Levy reproduces the attitudes, but also the motives behind them, of a time that was not only extremely hard, but also utterly different to ours. Because, if bigotry cannot be condoned or even justified, it can, and should, be understood as a rational reaction found in people at large.
Levy’s reproduction of the times is far from flawless, most notably in her characterization of Hortense, a Jamaican teacher whose pride and propriety leads her to a headlong collision against the coarse realities of working-class England, and Bernard, a timid bank clerk whose preconceptions about the social ladder will find him at odds with the changes undergone by society following the end of World War II. Right at the other end of the novel’s spectrum stand Gilbert, an uneducated but hard-working Jamaican for whom his island has become too small, and Queenie, a beautiful peasant whose life is turned upside down by her aunt’s determination to bring her to the city and give her the chance to “improve herself.” And yet, even though at times Hortense’s character feels more like a caricature, and even if it seems implausible that Bertrand’s profound racism could be overturned merely by the smile of his wife’s newborn baby, a mixed-race child who is clearly not his, Small Island still opens avenues of reinterpretation and understanding about some of the most important issues in the forging of modern British society –and it does so in an entertaining and dynamic fashion.
In 2010, after a six-year break, Andrea Levy published her latest novel, The Long Song, in which she takes the question of her Jamaican heritage all the way back to the days of plantations and slavery. Set in 1898, the novel is purportedly an account by an octogenarian woman about the things she saw when she was a young woman at the Amity plantation, during the years immediately prior to and after manumission. Framed, and often interrupted, by a narrative device that conveys to the reader the struggles of the narrator –July, the old woman– with her editor and publisher, who is also her son, The Long Song is far more assertive and more self-confident in its voice than Levy’s previous novels. Indeed, at various points the narrator challenges the reader to close the book and stop reading, as she refuses to delve into, for instance, the gory details of the Baptist War. While this experiment is perhaps the least successful aspect of Levy’s novel, it proves a useful and cunning strategy when we learn that the narrator and the protagonist of the novel are one and the same person. The problem, however, is that at times the reader might have difficulties to find much interest in July’s story –particularly in the opening section of the novel.
Much like in Small Island, Levy firmly grabs hold of the reader when the intricacies of a general conflict (WWII in the former, the Baptist War in The Long Song) affect directly and specifically the lives of individuals. Thus, as the reverie of the rebellion overtakes the servants at Amity plantation and the ruthless aftermath drives even the master of the estate to despair, that is when the reader becomes engrossed in a tale that no longer will allow to be put down. Yet, if it is true that Levy’s last two novels share their strength, they also come short in similar aspects, as a number of central figures in The Long Song come too close to the caricatural. It is the case, most notably, with the overseer of the plantation, Robert Goodwin, the son of a Baptist Minister who comes with lofty ideals about liberty and equality to the Caribbean, only to see circumstances change his mind in dramatic fashion.
Long listed for the Booker Prize in 2010 and winner of the 2011 Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction, The Long Song is more compact than Small Island, even if it spans 80 years of history. But the history with which it is concerned is more remote, and perhaps Levy felt less obliged to look at the situation from every angle at once, and therefore the novel reads more smoothly, more naturally, than her previous work. Which is not to say that every angle will not be covered in the future, because the ending to The Long Song invites us to speculate that a second volume will follow, to provide us with a British perspective on the same subject. Let’s just hope it does not take her another six years to write it!
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD NEWSPAPER ON SATURDAY, JUNE 25, 2011.