July: Andrea Levy’s Small Island

Andrea Levy’s novel Small Island won the Orange Prize for Fiction 2004, the 2004 Whitbread Novel Award, and the Whitbread Book of the Year. It was also named the 2005 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize Best Book and the 2005 Orange Prize’s “Best of the Best” award. A reviewer for Australia’s The Age wrote: ”Small Island is a triumph of poise, organisation and deep, deep character – the sort of work that can only be achieved by an experienced novelist, comfortable with her powers and confident in her technique. Ugliness and struggle, humour and forbearance, this is the myriad-voiced sound of a nation in transformation.”

Here’s a description of the novel from Levy’s website: in “Small Island Levy examines the experiences of those of her father’s generation who returned to Britain after being in the RAF during the Second World War. But more than just the story of the Jamaicans who came looking for a new life in the Mother Country, she explores the adjustments and problems faced by the English people whom those Jamaicans came to live amongst. Immigration changes everyone’s lives and in Small Island Levy examines not only the conflicts of two cultures thrown together after a terrible war, but also the kindness and strength people can show to each other. The Second World War was a great catalyst that has led to the multi-cultural society Britain has become. For Andrea Levy acknowledging the role played by all sides in this change is an important part of understanding the process so we can go on to create a better future together.”

Levy’s own experiences in the word give her a unique perspective on the role of the immigrant. Here’s some background information on Levy from her website: “In 1948 Andrea Levy’s father sailed from Jamaica to England on the Empire Windrushship and her mother joined him soon after. Andrea was born in London in 1956, growing up black in what was still a very white England. This experience has given her an complex perspective on the country of her birth.

“Andrea Levy did not begin writing until she was in her mid-thirties. At that time there was little written about the black British experience in Britian. After attending writing workshops Levy began to write the novels that she, as a young woman, had always wanted to read – entertaining novels that reflect the experiences of black Britons, that look closely and perceptively at Britain and its changing population and at the intimacies that bind British history with that of the Caribbean. In her first three novels she explored – from different perspectives – the problems faced by black British-born children of Jamaican emigrants. In her first novel, the semi-autobiographical Every Light in the House Burnin’ (1994), the story is of a Jamaican family living in London in the 1960s. Never Far from Nowhere (1996), her second, is set during the 1970s and tells the story of two very different sisters living on a London council estate. In Fruit of the Lemon( 1999), Faith Jackson, a young black woman, visits Jamaica after suffering a nervous breakdown and discovers a previously unknown personal history.”

The TV adaptation of Small Island has won a Broadcast Award for the Best Single TV Drama. It has also won an International Emmy in the US for best TV movie/mini series 2010, and was nominated for several BAFTAs, winning for best music. If you haven’t seen the TV adaptation it is now available on DVD.

Small Island was the subject of a recent Guardian Book Club feature. Here is a link to a podcast of Andrea talking about the book with John Mullan and answering questions from the audience.


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