Katy Guest reviews Andrea Levy’s new book for London’s Independent.
In the autobiographical essay that opens this collection, Levy writes about her early life, growing up in London.
“My mum would get embarrassed if she saw a black person drawing attention to themselves,” she recalls. “It drew attention to her as well, and she hated that.” This brief introductory essay describes how her parents moved to the UK from Jamaica, her own upbringing as a light-skinned black girl in 1960s England, and how she later visited the Caribbean and learned much more about world history and her own. “My heritage is Britain’s story too,” she deftly argues, and this slim collection shows, in ways both subtle and compelling, how this is so.
Most of the stories are drawn from life. In “The Diary”, a woman with an invisible role in a theatre company finds a way to get herself seen. The creepy story “Deborah” was written when newspapers were full of a murder committed by children, and aims to dispel “such simple notions as good and evil”. Deborah is the local naughty girl. It is written from the point of view of a nine-year-old girl for whom sinister aspects creep in only around the edges of her subconscious: “… a coat on a hanger was hanging from the curtain rail – big and dark in the window like a stranger you shouldn’t talk to ….”
There is a neat story about immigrants and asylum seekers, “Loose Change”, which touches on the somewhat uneasy relationship that often exists in Britain between the older newcomers and the new, and a shocking little vignette about fear and racism called “The Empty Pram”. We also get to meet the first ever incarnation of Hortense – the heroine of Levy’s award-winning 2004 novel Small Island – in “That Polite Way That English People Have”. The story was written to be read aloud, Levy says, which may explain why Hortense was so believable and such a hit.
This story and the final one portray the immigrant experience as a disappointing one. Hortense imagines herself as more English than the English, and plans to live “in a nice house with a garden”. Her English employer has sold her a coat – and sold her a pup. The two Jamaican First World War soldiers who join up to fight for Britain in “Uriah’s War” are similarly sold down the river, though with more devastating consequences. Levy reports that her grandfather fought at the Somme, but she didn’t believe it when she heard because men like him have been all but forgotten.
This is a slight collection, but full of important insights. Good for Levy for drawing attention to them.