Her five novels, and two collections of short stories, have won her a multitude of awards and extensive critical praise. However, above all of the accolades comes her contribution to Britain’s collective understanding of its complex history with the Caribbean, and the legacy that this relationship has left on black communities on both sides of the Atlantic. The five novels featured in this article are an example of how Levy transports her readers into the past and explores the human side of history.
Levy’s first novel, every light in the house burnin’, tells the story of a young black girl’s childhood in a North London council estate. The protagonist, Angela, recollects her childhood as her father’s health deteriorates.
The story illuminates the struggles of Jamaican immigrants who moved over in great numbers in the 1950s, in order to provide a better life for their families. The narrative is so ‘ordinary’ in parts that it reads more realistically than many novels. Rather than attempting to grip her audience with unnecessary drama, Levy delivers the lesser-known truth of life as an immigrant and the identity issues this causes their children. It is a theme she revisits throughout her first three semi-autobiographical novels.
Another of Levy’s novels set to the backdrop of a London council estate, Never Far from Nowhere pushes the boundaries of the racial debate to new levels, as the differing skin tone of two sisters, Olive and Vivien, changes the direction of their entire lives.
The younger of the two, Vivien, is lighter skinned than her sister, which enables her to get ahead and fit in with the ‘white crowd’ at school. In an attempt to get ahead she denies her Jamaican heritage and in doing so is able to live a ‘normal’ school life. Her sister’s darker complexion puts her at the brunt of racial prejudice and her existence is ultimately more depressing. Despite the clear theme of racial tension, the message is delivered with exceptional subtlety, which gives an altogether more thought-provoking view of systemic racism.
Charting the life of Faith Jackson, a young black woman struggling to kickstart her career in 1980s Britain, the novel gives an eye-opening perspective of the latent racism that lay at the heart of the nation in the 1980s. Initially, Faith is disinterested in her Jamaican heritage and refuses to accept that the country she considers her home is predominantly inhabited by people who discriminate against her and the rest of the black community. Her eventual realization of this fact causes her a severe mental breakdown.
The novel is split into two sections, part one in London and part two in Jamaica. Following her breakdown, Faith decides to travel to Jamaica to discover more about her ancestry and discover who she truly is. Through her eyes, the reader is given a clear insight into the lives of minorities and the disturbing amount of discrimination they, and their families, experience. The novel is a beautiful portrayal of Faith’s inner struggle and should be considered an essential read for any immigrant struggling with dual nationality.
Small Island represented Levy’s first foray into history beyond her own lifetime. Small Island is by far her most complex work, as it chronicles the lives of four separate protagonists who are connected by love, war, and fate. Not one of the characters is painted as an exceptional moral example; instead, they reflect the true complexity of the human experience. Each narrator has a distinct ‘voice’ and style, which is a clear illustration of Levy’s exceptional talent.
Set before, during, and after World War Two, Levy once again highlights the inherent racial tensions of the time and the outsiders’ struggle to fit in, whether that’s because they’re dreaming of a better life or because they’re overwhelmed by the feelings of isolation and displacement that set in upon arrival.
The novel is immaculately researched, with references to actual historical events and a thorough understanding of different Caribbean and British dialects. Levy’s desire to bring humanity to history is done so effectively in Small Island that turning the pages is like falling through time and reliving the lives of those who went before us. As all great authors do, Levy shines a light up to the past in order for us to learn its lessons.
The Long Song tackles the most abhorrent episode in the dual history of the Caribbean and Britain – the slave trade. Set on a Jamaican sugarcane plantation (Amity) in the 19th century, shortly before, and immediately after the abolition of the slave trade, the novel attempts to tackle the root of race issues that have plagued black communities across the western world for centuries.
The story itself is a memoir of the character July, a mulatto, whose father was a Scottish overseer who raped her slave mother, Kitty. The story is played out against the backdrop of the 10-day Baptist War in 1831. However, it is July’s menage-a-trois with the plantation owner, Caroline Mortimer and her English abolitionist husband, Robert that is the focal point.
Levy finds a way of writing that never judges her characters. Despite the main characters serious flaws, we are able to sympathise with each of them in their own way. In the midst of slave rebellion and social change, it is the human elements of love, identity, and humour that shine through the narrative.
Whether writing from the perspective of a former slave, a slave owner, a young black seamstress, or a middle-aged white landlady, Levy challenges her readers to question if we should accept that these people are simply a product of their times or if they could have done more to prevent the racial tensions that still exist today. In doing so she challenges each of us to ask ourselves the same questions about modern-day society, in an attempt to deconstruct discriminatory attitudes. Few British writers in the last fifty years can claim to have had such a profound effect on the nation’s collective conscience.