Reading Levy’s back catalogue is an interesting experience because you really can see the genesis of the magnificent “Small Island”. This novel, the precursor to SI, focuses on the experiences of a British-born Jamaican girl, who believes that race is not an issue.
It is a novel of two halves: the first depicts her experiences in Britain as she strikes out for independence from her Jamaican immigrant parents, moving into a house-share with three white-skinned British. Her parents are outraged for she is not “among her kind”. Does it matter? It would appear so for despite finding a job at the BBC, mixing with all kinds of famous people, a number of incidents bring her to a gradual awareness that the colour of her skin is impacting on her chances of success in both her career and her love life. She ends up suffering a nervous breakdown of sorts. Her family ship her off to Jamaica to discover her roots and “her kind”.
Throughout the second half of the novel the protagonist traces her family tree and comes to understand her background, her history and her heritage. While the structure of this second half leaves much to be desired – there are too many set pieces of family history interrupting the narrative flow – it does raise some interesting issues. I’m unsure of how true it is today, but, certainly in the past, Jamaicans used the varying hues of their skin to discriminate against each other. Using the words of the novel, there are numerous instances where someone is frowned upon for being “too black” to marry, their lips are “too thick” i.e these people are too obviously of African descent.
The novel ends a little too abruptly and too neatly. Our heroine arrives back in Britain on Guy Fawkes night, the same date as the original arrival of her parents on a banana boat. We infer that her attitude has changed, that she is now equipped with the necessary to cope better in Britain. Yet, I for one, would have loved to see this translating into action.
Yet, even with its flaws, I found this novel an interesting and, thankfully, non-hysterical commentary on the issue of racism in contemporary Britain.