ANDREA LEVY: TO BE OR NOT TO BE BRITISH

Andrea Levy’s prize-winning novel Small Island was published just last year, but James Ferguson says we should consider it a classic already

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How can a book published only last year already be a classic? A good question, and the only sensible answer is, quite simply, because it is brilliant. Small Island has already been showered with literary prizes, while the paperback is adorned with more favourable quotes from critics and peers than seems decent. If, like me, you tend towards scepticism when London’s notoriously incestuous literary elite start waxing lyrical over a book, then think again. This novel deserves all the praise it has received. Of course, seasoned readers of Caribbean literature might be excused a certain sense of déjà vu on learning that the book deals with the experiences of West Indian migrants in post-war London. Haven’t we been here before? The 50th anniversary, in 1998, of the arrival of the Empire Windrush (the ship that brought the first 500 hopeful immigrants from the Caribbean) generated a great deal of writing, good and bad. Sam Selvon’s book The Lonely Londoners (1956) was a milestone in West Indian fiction, depicting the tragicomic escapades of a group of Trinidadian men in a cold and unwelcoming London. Since then, Caryl Phillips and many others have sought to recapture in prose the culture shock felt by those pioneer migrants. But what is rather different about Andrea Levy’s novel is that it looks at this clash of cultures and attitudes not just from one vantage point, but from several, simultaneously, drawing the reader into the complex interaction between immigrants and the inhabitants of the “Mother Country”. The novel’s title, in itself, is deeply ambiguous, and points to this complexity. Is the small island the distant colonial outpost of Jamaica, from where the novel’s Caribbean protagonists originate? Or is it Blighty itself, smashed and shrunken by the trauma of the Second World War, a place small not only in size but in mind? Small Island is a profoundly serious book, in that it explores the relationship between the colonial power and the colonial subject, between an ailing Britain and those in Jamaica who believed themselves to be a valued part of the British Empire. We know that the many West Indians who volunteered to fight for Britain in the Second World War were often treated shabbily. We know also that those who arrived starting in 1948 to fill mostly menial vacancies in the post-war economy also faced ignorance and prejudice from those with whom and for whom they had fought. Levy, the British-born daughter of Jamaican immigrants, applies to this well-documented and shameful period of social history an eye for detail and an ear for language that bring the atmosphere of the time startlingly to life. The grim deprivations of the ration period, the shattered landscape of post-Blitz London, the strange and often illicit relationships that blossomed during wartime and its aftermath: all of these she evokes with an extraordinary precision. The London she depicts is a cold, grey place, where those who have lived through the war cling to a tattered gentility that expresses itself in hostility to anything different, in a visceral dislike of “coloureds”. Only the hysterical racism of the white American GIs stationed in Britain during the war outdoes the ungiving prejudice of respectable Little England. The British race phobia stands in poignant contrast to the high hopes felt by the Jamaican migrants Gilbert and Hortense, who really do believe that Britain will extend a welcome to an ex-airman and a would-be teacher. But how wrong these hopes are shown to be, as they encounter incomprehension and hatred. Just one well-chosen scene, when Hortense, armed with her Jamaican teaching diploma and letters of recommendation, goes to the local education office in search of work, only to be met with sneering disdain, illustrates the depth of the problem. The book is also extremely funny in parts, and this in no sense detracts from its underlying seriousness. Levy is very good at mocking the pretentiousness of Hortense, whose high degree of self-worth remains more or less intact throughout the obstacles she faces, as well as the feckless good nature of her husband Gilbert. These characters are in no sense stereotypical, but rather multi-dimensional, entirely believable personalities, with whom one cannot help but empathise. This ability to create completely credible characters, or rather narrators, is perhaps the greatest achievement of the novel. The narrative is shared between four personae: Gilbert and Hortense, and a white British couple, Queenie and Bernard. Because of Levy’s subtle handling of time and perspective, we gradually get to know more about all of them and realise how their lives, initially unrelated, become intimately intertwined. This she achieves by interweaving an earlier wartime period with the main part of the narrative, set in 1948, and by shifting the narrative voice from one character to another. Thus, what Gilbert sees and describes may also be talked about by Queenie or Bernard, casting a wholly different perspective on the same events. Out of this deft narrative structure comes a gradual identification with the characters, even those with whom at first the reader may have felt little empathy. Bernard Bligh, for instance, whom one might initially have dismissed as a bigoted bank clerk — and who, incidentally, remains as racially prejudiced at the end of the book as at the beginning — nonetheless wins something akin to sympathy because of the way in which Levy allows us to perceive the world through his eyes. The imaginative construction of a white, middle-class Englishman’s experiences, counterposed with those of a young Jamaican woman (each equally credible) is ultimately the great strength of this novel. Likewise, the character of Queenie, tolerant, generous and starved of affection, is a great achievement. I shall not spoil the enjoyment of anyone who goes on to read the book by explaining what happens (for this is also a powerful and poignant love story — or set of stories), but it should be said that it remains full of twists and surprises until the very end. It also covers a huge range of ground, historical and geographical, encompassing not only life in London and Jamaica pre- and post-war, but also Calcutta and the British campaign against the Japanese in Asia. In each of these finely sketched scenes we keep returning to the nub of the issue — Britishness, the colonial experience, and the painful birth of a multicultural society. There are not that many novels one really does not want to end, but this is one of them. In its freshness and vitality, it captures a haunting sense of place, the smallest and most convincing nuance of language and the intense warmth and terrible emptiness of human relationships. With its satisfying structure and irrepressible generosity of spirit, Small Island is without doubt a classic, and one that will be read for many years to come.