Publisher: Picador ($14)
Author's Website: http://www.andrealevy.co.uk/
(It was a recent review on Nomadica's blog that prompted me to pick this book off my shelf, dust it off and read it)
Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction, 2004 and the Whitbread Prize the same year, this novel by Andrea Levy takes place in post-war Britain and is told through the point of view of four narrators Hortense Roberts and Gilbert Joseph, Queenie and Bernard Bligh. Hortense and Gilbert are from Jamaica. Gilbert, intensely patriotic to "mother country" England, travels to London and joins England's forces in its war against Germany. Hortense, a cultured school teacher, sensing Gilbert could be her ticket out of poverty-racked Jamaica, decides to marry him and follows him to London several months after the war. Unfortunately, London isn't anything like Hortense imagined. The English, instead of being grateful for the service provided by the Caribbean men in the war against Hitler, resent the new immigrants, or "darkies" as they call them. Hortense, along with Gilbert, find England an extremely racist society, for instance, while walking on the sidewalk they are expected to step onto the road to make way for a white person. They also had to get used to cries of "Golliwog, golliwog" when out on the streets!
Ofcourse, there are readers who have made the observation that perhaps this book deals with racism in reverse, in that the Jamican characters are treated more charitably than the English, and not always deservingly so.
Queenie is a working class Londoner. Although white, she has been a little in love with Africa ever since she encountered an African display at a "British Empire Exhibition" when she was a little girl. During the war, Queenie finds it difficult to meet ends meet and much to the consternation of her racist neighbors, takes Gilbert and Hortense in as lodgers. Bernard is Queenie's husband and he was a soldier in India during the war.
THe story is wonderfully written - warm and funny at times, desperately depressing at others but it is almost always engaging. The three main themes of the book are the migrant experience, racism and integration, and within those themes you learn about the class system which prevailed in Britain at the time, the British Empire's treatment of the inhabitants of its Caribbean and Indian colonies and America's segregation of black GIs . Also, fascinatingly, the novel moves back through the war years, showing the sheer awfulness of war...
While I enjoyed the novel and felt like I learned so much, I will have to admit the author lost me as a reader in the last quarter which is mostly devoted to Bernard's narrative; of all the characters, I like Bernard the least because he comes across as a weak person, arrogant only because he thinks as an Englishman he is superior to the "darkies". Having to read his point of view broke the sweet harmonious relationship I as a reader had with the three other strong characters as they told their intertwining stories.
Also read Lesley's (of Lesley's Book Nook) review for Small Island here