Publisher: Headline Book Publishing/Picador USA
Length: 530 pages
About: Racial tensions in 1940s London
Style: 1st and 3rd person
Where: London, England
Hortense Joseph arrives in London from Jamaica in 1948 with her life in her suitcase, her heart broken, her resolve intact. Her husband, Gilbert Joseph, returns from the war expecting to be
received as a hero, but finds his status as a black man in Britain to be second class. His white landlady, Queenie, raised as a farmer's daughter, befriends Gilbert, and later Hortense, with
innocence and courage, until the unexpected arrival of her husband, Bernard, who returns from combat with issues of his own to resolve.
I was brought up in a family with ten children. At that dinning table at home one lax moment and half my dinner could be gone to my neighbour. I learn to eat quickly whilst defending my plate with
a protective arm. But with this English food I sat back, chewed slowly and willed my compatriots to thieve. I had not yet seen a war zone but if the enemy had been frying up some fish and dumpling
whose knows which way I would point my gun.
What makes Levy's writing so appealing is her even-handedness. All her characters can be weak, hopeless, brave, good, bad - whatever their colour. As Kate Mosse, founder of the Orange Prize says:
"People think it's only possible to be a black writer and be angry about black/white relations. But colour is invisible in Andrea's books. It's not about being black or white. We all exist in every
shade of grey."
Marianne Brace, The Independent, 12th June 2004
Not so good:
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.
Mike Phillips, The Guardian, 14th February 2004
About the author
Andrea Levy (born 1956) is an English author, born in London to Jamaican parents who sailed to England on the Empire Windrush in 1948
Andrea Levy is of primarily Afro-Jamaican descent. She has a Jewish paternal grandfather and a Scots maternal great-grandfather.
In her mid-twenties she did work for a social institution that included dealing with racist attacks. She also worked part-time in the BBC costume department, while starting a graphic design
company with her husband Bill Mayblin. During this time she experienced a form of awakening to her identity concerning both her gender and her race. She also became aware of the power of books and
began to read “excessively”: it was easy enough to find literature by black writers from the United States, but she could find very little literature from black writers in the United Kingdom.
Levy began writing only in her mid-thirties, having enrolled in Alison Fell's Creative Writing class at the City Lit in 1989, continuing on the course for seven years.