Andrea Levy has become one of our best-known novelists, author of the acclaimed Every Light in the House Burnin', Never Far From Nowhere, and Fruit of the Lemon, and a 2001 Guardian article ("This is my England") which evokes her English-Jamaican identity. Small Island is by far her best-known work, recently made into an affecting BBC series. Indeed, looking back, it is clearly one of the defining novels of the noughties (published in 2004, it not only won the Orange prize but also the Orange Best of the Best as the finest winner of the previous ten years). The title refers equally to the two small islands which figure in it, Jamaica and England, ironically underscoring the unequal relationship between them.
Jamaican schoolteacher Hortense Joseph—prim, sensitive and somewhat snobbish—is convinced, to quote Alan Bennett, that life is something that generally happens elsewhere. Her education has made her feel an umbilical connection with the Mother Country, and she has always been determined to get to England. Newly arrived in post-war London to live with her husband Gilbert (a former RAF serviceman, like so many other Windrush immigrants), in a lodging house run by the generous-hearted Queenie Bligh, she is alarmed to discover that England's attitudes towards them are far from straightforwardly maternal. Hortense is forced to ask herself the question: What sort of mother does not know her own child? It recurs forcefully in the tragic conclusion, but is never answered definitively.
The novel is a multivocal narrative, but though their husbands are major characters, Hortense and Queenie seem to dominate it. Levy's main concern is the various permutations of prejudice, but she also depicts the restrictions of women's lives at the time: the cheerless domestic drudgery of Queenie's existence, and Hortense's marriage of convenience to Gilbert, to enable her to travel to England. Hortense is compelling in her combination of pride and vulnerability, saddening in her quest to find work as a schoolteacher —a dream that, like Gilbert's ambition to study law, must be deferred— and irritating in her determination to teach herself Received Pronunciation using the wireless, to avoid picking up the Cockney speech around her. The growth of warmth and dependence between Hortense and Gilbert in this harsh new world is subtly and movingly conveyed. In her portrait of Queenie, Levy shows how the war temporarily opened up women's horizons, giving them a wider field of action than the family home. Queenie battles heroically through the Blitz, helping traumatised, bombed-out families to negotiate wartime bureaucracy for rations books or clothing coupons ("it was my job to find out who they had once been and where they had once lived....me straining to hear those weary fragile voices").
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is Levy's detailed recreation of forties life: an enormous war blanket made out of knitted squares by an old Jamaican woman, the Blighs' grandfather clock (wound so tight that it keeps belling every fifteen minutes), and Hortense's hat and white gloves, symbolic of her ladylike persona. By focussing on post-war immigrants` perceptions, Levy also finds an engaging angle on the period, contrasting their dreams of England with the reality that confronts them on arrival. The Jamaican characters expect an England of tinkling tea-shops, open fires and refined conversation, an industrial and engineering powerhouse proud of its railways and canals, and the crucible of parliamentary democracy. Instead, they are shocked by the destruction and poverty that they encounter in a country too drained to keep up appearances. There is a telling moment when Hortense visits a drapers shop: "Bolts and bolts of cloth thrown this way and that all about the place....In Jamaica, I told Mrs Bligh, all the cloth is displayed neatly in rows for you to peruse the design, the colour." Exasperated Gilbert repeatedly remonstrates with her for expecting too much gentility of a city still reeling from the Blitz ("There been a war here. Everyone live like this").
Levy never once indulges in caricature. All the various idioms, from Cockney to patois, are accurately captured without a trace of condescension. Few writers truly possess an eye-of-God perspective, but Levy has it: everyone is understood, including Queenie's prejudiced husband Bernard— his emotional responses hardened by a lonely childhood with a shell-shocked father—who eventually displays a flicker that complicates the reader`s negative view of him. In this superbly-balanced novel all the characters have their faults and follies, even Queenie (whose impatience with Bernard's father, Arthur, is often wince-inducing), while Hortense's initial contempt for Gilbert takes a long time to disappear.
This examination of ordinary mid-century lives has epic resonance, a memorial of the challenges faced by the Windrush generation in making a home in post-war England. These struggles are symbolised by Hortense and Gilbert's transformation of a dilapidated house in Finsbury Park into their vision of domesticity, and given added poignancy by Churchill's famous tribute to the RAF, with which Levy closes the novel. The tragedy of the ending forces us to contrast present-day England with the past and reflect that today it would be otherwise, while Levy's talent for rich, wry comedy keeps the novel bearable, even at its most harrowing.--Isabel Taylor
In his book Psychogeography, Merlin Coverley offers a potted history of a little-known literary character named Robinson (even informing us that 'robinsonner' is an obscure French verb meaning to 'travel mentally' or daydream). Coverley examines Robinson Crusoe, Rimbaud—specifically the poem Roman— and details Robinson's appearances in the works of Céline, Weldon Kees, and in the films of Patrick Keiller. Coverly also, of course, refers to the novel under discussion here: Chris Petit's Robinson. Petit is obviously a keen follower of this enigmatic literary survivor: not only has he made documented allusions to the Robinson of Céline's Journey to the End of the Night (see, for example, the booklet that accompanies the BFI reissue of his film debut Radio On), he also prefaces Robinson with an atmospheric line from the Weldon Kees poem Aspects Of Robinson: "Robinson alone at Longchamps, staring at the wall." (After finishing Robinson it is well worth reading the Kees poem, and the poet's other related works. The character therein -plaid jacket, smart shoes, overcoat—will undoubtedly raise a knowing, Robinsonian smile.)
In Petit's novel we meet Robinson, unsurprisingly, in a Soho pub. Christo, the narrator, is recalling their initial meeting and the curious sense of familiarity that he experienced at first sight of Robinson. In a handful of lines, Petit immaculately sets the tone for Robinson: we are in Soho, drink is involved, Christo frequents the same sort of place as Robinson and is drawn to him by his aura. The rollercoaster can now begin. The reader tags along in the role of voyeur as Christo is guided and cajoled by Robinson into a shadow-world of irrationality, depravity, jealousy, borderline squalor and petty opportunism. It is a world populated by the type of collaborator that Robinson attracts, chief amongst them Cookie, an obvious charlatan with military pretensions but a man who proves himself increasingly useful to Robinson as their endeavours grow ever more wayward and, ultimately, rather tiresome for all involved. Petit uses Cookie to provide moments of light relief, yet as readers we eventually know enough to classify him as an extremely worrying individual worthy of the novels of Patrick Hamilton. Indeed, the influences of Hamilton and Derek Raymond meander like underground streams throughout.
Christo's account of this series of emotional and near-physical capitulations, of life lived in a manner that could arguably be called demented, is strikingly neutral: he is calm, matter-of-fact, analytical, never vouchsafing much of an opinion. Petit's use of such a level narrative voice fits perfectly when you consider that the novel is written in first-person recent hindsight, rather like a diary. This voice suits the routine of a man not only shrouded constantly in the dullness of managed alcoholism, but at times also harbouring psychotic tendencies. (It is easy to slip into thinking that Robinson is the novel's singular basket-case, but this is not so.) The detached nature of the prose leads the reader to wonder whether Robinson is allegorical: increasingly, on re-reading it, I see the character of Robinson, with his inscrutable smile and beckoning gestures, as Soho itself. Of course, it may be that this ordered, diary-like style is a product of Petit's background as a movie director. The book contains many cinematic references, and the making and watching of film are central to the plot. At no point is this more evident than in the novel's concluding phase: the final sequences of Robinson's film are being shot and edited, while a lost Christo wanders through the seemingly pre-apocalyptic collapse of London's services, society and weather. Christo writes his own ending. Robinson is on a boat, one arm aloft, and a directive, surely from the narrator to himself, commands "Come away now."
As the enduring literary character that he is, Robinson might well be nonplussed at first by the council-monitored and ostensibly visitor-friendly Soho of today, compared to the apparently time-warped (but, in reality, soon to vanish) 'death in the afternoon' warrens of the early nineties. But Robinson would still find his niche; he would find a way to exert his gravitational pull on the Christos of this world and make progress. In fact, in an absorbing interview with 3:AM Magazine (1), Petit muses on exactly what the present-day Robinson (the Robinson of a possible sequel?) would be up to: "He could be seen in a box at Chelsea....He would be masquerading as a philanthropist, with several charity fronts.…The most shocking thing I can think of is that Robinson discovers God and becomes sincere."--Neil Jackson
1) Interview extracts are from 3:AM Magazine, first published Thursday March 22nd, 2007.
Neil Jackson comes from Newcastle upon Tyne and has a background in freelance writing, music and independent publishing. His interests include British novels and the 'new-wave' cinema movement. Neil's review of Chris Petit's Radio On can be read in our Cinema section.--Ed.