Andrea Levy first travelled to the Caribbean in the late 1990s, when she was approaching her forties. In and of itself there’s nothing unusual about a woman from north London not visiting the Caribbean – but in Levy’s case, both her mother and her father were Jamaican! The secret life of her parents, the part of her heritage that forms the past of her own past, is the starting point of her third novel, Fruit of the Lemon (1999). Faith Jackson, the protagonist, is a young costume designer at the BBC who has just learned her parents are moving “home”. To Jamaica. The start of the book places the reader right in the middle of Faith’s rather violent surroundings as a school girl: “‘Your mum and dad came on a banana boat,’ that was what the bully boys at my primary school used to say.” Faith relays the matter to her mother, certain in her innocence that she will be comforted with a perfectly normal explanation. “So it was a bit of a shock when Mum told me, ‘We came on a banana boat to England, your dad and me. The Jamaica Producers’ banana boat.”
If the opening line of Fruit of the Lemon announces the serious and unavoidable issues the novels tackles – issues of identity and heritage, or racism and hatred – then the way in which the episode is resolved, before the end of the first page, is indicative of the tone, even-keeled and compassionate, that most clearly defines Levy’s writing:
‘Where did you sit on this boat?’ I asked my mum.
And she laughed. ‘It was a proper boat with cabins and everything […] What, you think we sit among the bananas?’
I didn’t tell her then but, yes, that was exactly what I thought. My mum and dad curled up on the floor of a ship, wrapped in a blanket perhaps, trying to find a comfortable spot among the spiky prongs of unripe bananas.
Levy’s father, Winston, arrived in England in 1948 not on a banana boat but together with approximately eight hundred other West Indians aboard the Windrush Empire – the first sizable contingent of Commonwealth citizens responding to the government’s call to help rebuild the ‘Mother Country’. Her mother, Amy, however, was not in the Windrush, and though it wouldn’t be long before she joined Winston, she did make the passage on a banana boat.
Like Faith, Levy grew up very much aware that she was different to the majority of people around her – that she was part of a minority – but she didn’t develop a strong sense of identity around that minority. She was born in 1956, eight years after her parents had settled not in South London, like so many, but in Haringey, where to this day a strong West Indian community mingles with an equally strong Muslim one, and an Indian one, and the growing number of hipsters encroaching from all sides. In the late 1960s and the 1970s, when Levy was growing up, gentrification was not a thing and even if it had been Haringey couldn’t have been farther away from its threat – if it even poses one. The Levys were a working class family in a working class neighbourhood, and Andrea, the baby of the clan, was expected to do exactly what her parents had done: work. It’s not that writing wasn’t appropriate or suitable, it wasn’t even on the cards.
Her career as a costume assistant for the BBC put Levy in contact with the art of storytelling, and in her mid thirties she began attending creative writing workshops. It was through literature that she began unravelling the maze that was her own heritage. And yet, her semi-autobiographical first novel, Every Light in the House Burnin’ (1994), was repeatedly rejected as publishers failed to see that the particulars of her experience were shared by the growing number – an emerging market – of second generation Brits. Before Levy, only Caryl Phillips had shed light on the complexity of being both British and alien at the same time, and he tackled the subject from a completely different angle.
Levy’s big success came with her fourth novel, Small Island (2004), a book that explores the delicate situation her parents’ walked into by moving to Britain in 1948. Viewed from multiple perspectives and with profoundly empathetic eyes, Levy turns a difficult subject into an entertaining one, telling a beautiful story with flair and fluency. Her final novel, The Long Song (2010) did not win as many awards as Small Island, but it successfully applies the same principle to an even more delicate subject, engaging with slavery through the story of July, an unruly octagenarian narrator who is feisty and funny in equal measure.
Levy’s books are set at different times and often take the reader to the remote past in distant locations, but ultimately what makes them special is their thorough exploration of the multiplicity and diversity of western society in the twenty-first century. She is a British – no, a London – writer, yet in Levy’s enquiry into the myriad, at times contradictory, often troubling strands contained in the modern experience she finds the way to be forgiving without being condescending, to be proud without being arrogant, and above all to be awed by the richness of life. Andrea Levy left us last Friday, after living many years with cancer, but in her work she has endowed us with a manual of how to take the good with the bad, and how to turn it all into the wonderful.
Published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday February 23, 2019.