Mike Phillips salutes Andrea Levy's honest narrative, Small Island.
Andrea Levy's narrative switches between four protagonists. The first, Queenie, is Gilbert's white landlady; they met during wartime when he came over as an RAF recruit. Returning on the SS Empire Windrush, he looks her up and takes a room in her house. Hortense, the Jamaican girl whom Gilbert married immediately before boarding the boat, arrives later to share his crumbling attic room; and Queenie's long-lost husband, Bernard, finds his way back, a year after his demob, shortly after Hortense has taken up residence. The year is 1948.
The interaction between the couples is, to a certain extent, predictable, but a notable feature of the book is that the entire narrative and the stories within it clearly emerge from the memories of the period's survivors. If ever there was a novel which offered a historically faithful account of how its characters thought and behaved, this is it. But the sheer excellence of Levy's research goes beyond the granddad tales of 50-year-old migrant experience, or the nuts and bolts of historical fact. Her imagination illuminates old stories in a way that almost persuades you she was there at the time.
Her grip on the language of the characters is another surprise. There is an almost universal confusion in Britain about the nature of Caribbean dialects, and black authors reared in London or Birmingham have tended to reproduce the speech of every sort of Caribbean, regardless of region or class, as the same kind of pop music-inflected street slang, complete with missing consonants and apostrophised accents. Levy has no truck with this sort of gimmick. Instead, she creates a style which reproduces the rhythm and content of her characters' speech. Even more impressive, she does the same for her English characters. Queenie sounds like a Londoner brought up in the early part of the last century. Bernard sounds like a man who has served in the Far East.
Levy's immersion in the period seems an illustration of the fact that in recent years, 1948, marking the arrival at Tilbury of the Windrush, has taken on a new significance in the lexicon of Britain's social history. A few years ago, the commemoration of this event sparked off a small explosion of interest in the consequences of mid-20th century migration. Artists and writers of migrant origin, especially Afro-Caribbeans, have responded to this historical platform with a new confidence and interest in exploring both their own roots and the circumstances of the time. The result is a growing conversation about the effects of Caribbean migration on British identity.
Levy's authorial platform is balanced squarely in the middle of this conversation. The novel records some of the most un-pleasant racist aspects of the period, without displaying any sense of polemical intent, partly because her reliance on historical fact gives Levy a distance which allows her to be both dispassionate and compassionate. The history also offers an opportunity to construct the characters in patient and illuminating detail.
As you read on, however, it becomes apparent that her relentless layering of their personalities has a more subtle purpose. Hortense, for instance, is the least sympathetic character. Brought up with the consciousness that her "golden skin" makes her a superior creature in a country of darker skins, she is a village snob, insecure, narrow-minded, and more or less ignorant. Arriving in England with the expectation that it will be an upmarket version of her teacher-training college in Jamaica, she begins by despising the apparently feckless Gilbert and the circumstances to which he has brought her. She looks down her nose at working-class Queenie, and firmly rejects the notion that she has anything in common with the other slum-dwelling migrants. But she soon discovers that her precious qualifications have no meaning in the British education system, and that her status is precisely the same as that of any other black migrant. The revelation almost destroys her self-esteem, but it also sets her on a path to self-discovery. She ends by beginning to understand Gilbert's strength, Queenie's kindness and the sympathies she shares with them.
If I have a complaint about the novel it is related to Levy's rigorous adherence to historical fact, which occasionally gives you the feeling that she has been so interested or moved by a particular incident that she's manoeuvred her characters into the right place at the right time. For instance, Gilbert and Queenie are involved in a wartime incident where the US army attempts to impose a segregated seating plan in a local cinema. Gilbert resists and sets off a riot in which Queenie's father-in-law is shot dead by American military policemen. The story is a truthful rendering of several recorded incidents, but in the context of the narrative it has an incongruously melodramatic feel. In much the same way, Bernard's involvement in a mutiny in India, which, once again, fits with recorded fact, also feels, within the context of the book, a little over the top.
False notes of this kind, however, do not detract from the excellence of Levy's narrative. Apart from everything else, Small Island is a great read, delivering the sort of pleasure which has been the traditional stock-in-trade of a long line of English novelists. It's honest, skilful, thoughtful and important. This is Andrea Levy's big book.