An obituary by Lyn Innes for London’s Guardian.
Andrea Levy, who has died of cancer aged 62, gained wide recognition as a writer with the publication of her fourth novel, Small Island, in 2004. Intertwining the stories of two couples, one white British, the other Jamaican, and their struggles to survive and come to terms with one another in Britain during and after the second world war, Small Island was awarded the Orange prize, the Whitbread prize and, the following year, the Commonwealth literature prize. Ten years later, it was voted the Best of the Best Orange prize novels, and this May the National Theatre is due to mount a stage version.
Levy’s previous novels had gathered a smaller circle of admirers who had a particular interest in the experience of Caribbean immigrants in Britain. Her first novel, Every Light in the House Burnin’ (1994), is semi-autobiographical, depicting the difficulties faced and sometimes overcome by a Jamaican family in 1960s London. Two years later she published Never Far from Nowhere, set during the 1970s and focusing on the different choices made by the two daughters of Jamaican immigrants living on a council estate in London.
Although she was by no means the first Caribbean British writer to depict the experiences of the Windrush arrivals in the 1940s and 50s, Levy differed from earlier writers such as Sam Selvon, George Lamming and Beryl Gilroy in her focus on the experience of families with children, and especially the daughters of that generation, children who saw themselves not primarily in racial terms but as middle-class and British.
Fruit of the Lemon (1999), Levy’s third novel, began a longer project to explore the history of British Jamaicans and the impact of their complex inheritance. The title refers to the popular song: “Lemon tree, very pretty, and the lemon flower is sweet/ But the fruit of the lemon is impossible to eat.” The bitter fruit that the novel’s narrator, Faith Jackson, tastes is her growing realisation of racism and colour consciousness in both Britain and Jamaica. Nevertheless, her discovery of Jamaican culture and her family’s complex history allow Faith to return to Britain with restored self-confidence.
Comparisons between the two island communities continue in Small Island, which gives much greater attention to the intermingling of white and black histories in Britain. The widespread appreciation of this novel perhaps owes much to its status as historical fiction, recreating shared wartime experience, and also suggesting greater optimism in its ending, which shows how Queenie, the white landlady, gradually moves from ignorance and distrust to friendship and intimacy with the Jamaican couple.
The novel was selected in 2007 as the text for a mass read event to accompany commemorations of the abolition of slavery. Fifty thousand free copies were distributed across the country in towns and cities historically connected with slavery. Two years later Small Island was adapted as a successful BBC television series.
Levy’s fifth novel, The Long Song (2010), explores an earlier shared history of slaves and slave owners in 19th-century Jamaica, and was awarded the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction. It was also shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker prize. Last year the BBC showed a television adaptation, allowing viewers to see the tropical landscape and hear the “exotic” birds that the novel deliberately eschews. The fictional narrator is July, a house slave, daughter of a white overseer and the woman slave he has raped. “Waxing on the nature of trees when all know they are green and lush upon this island,” July’s Jamaican voice declares, “or birds which are plainly plentiful and raucous, or taking good words to whine upon the cruelly hot sun, is neither prudent nor my fancy.”
It is the people that July’s narrative concentrates on, both “black” and “white”, and the many colours in between, often carefully distinguished by July and others who take pride in having degrees of whiteness. Nor are the characters depicted in simple black and white: the slaves are not merely passive victims, for they are capable of outsmarting and tricking their masters, whose behaviour is often monstrous. Nevertheless, the white folk are also given “shades of grey”, as Sam Jordison noted in the Guardian.
Born in London, Andrea was the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica. Her father, Winston Levy, travelled to Britain on the Empire Windrush in 1948, and was joined six months later by his wife, Amy (nee Ridguard), who had been trained as a schoolteacher in Kingston, Jamaica. Both parents were of mixed race. Her father’s Jewish father emigrated to Jamaica after the first world war and converted to Christianity, and her mother was descended from William Ridsguard, a white plantation attorney who had a child with his black housekeeper. Both parents came to England expecting greater opportunities, but found that their qualifications were rejected.
Amy took in sewing and studied with the Open University in order to gain recognised credentials as a teacher, becoming one of the Open University’s first graduates. “She was a plucky woman, my mother,” Levy noted.
The youngest of four children, Andrea grew up on a council estate in Highbury, and attended Highbury Hill grammar school. She was not particularly good at English (she claimed she got an E). Nor was she interested in reading. She went to art school to study textile design, and there discovered friends who introduced her to books including Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room. It made her realise that “a book could be enjoyable”.
She also began to read African-American writers such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, and they in turn made her feel the need for novels reflecting her own experience of being black and British. So she thought she would try to create something, and joined a writing class at the City Lit. She received encouragement both from her tutor, Alison Fell, and from Bill Mayblin, her partner and later her husband, with whom she had formed a graphic design company. However, she had considerable difficulty finding publishers who were willing to believe that novels about the lives of black British families would be of interest to a general readership.
Another turning point came when in 1996 she decided to visit her mother’s family in Jamaica, where, according to Levy, she realised for the first time that she had “a background and an ancestry that were fascinating and worth exploring”. In Six Stories and an Essay (2014), Levy described how that visit changed her attitude toward her Jamaican heritage from shame to pride, and how writing gave her the means to explore that heritage.
Although she hoped that her novels would encourage conversations about Britain’s colonial and postcolonial history, including its involvement in slavery, Levy did not wish to be seen as someone who wrote about race. She wished to create stories which sought not to change people’s minds but to open them. “For me, writing has always been a journey of discovery about my past and my family,” she said in a 2015 interview. “All my books look at what it is to be black and British, trying to make the invisible visible, and to put back into history the people who got left out – people like my dad.”
Lenny Henry, who played Godfrey in the televised version of The Long Song, said of Levy’s fiction: “She tells hard stories with humour and compassion.”
In 2008 Levy was diagnosed with breast cancer, which was declared incurable five years later. “I accept that I am going to die of it,” she told Alan Yentob for a 2018 TV programme in the Imagine… series, “but while I am living, I live.”
She is survived by Bill and two stepdaughters.
• Andrea Doreen Levy, writer, born 7 March 1956; died 14 February 2019