Susan Alice Fischer
Andrea Levy, Small Island, London: Headline, 2004, ISBN 075530750X (pbk), 544 pps., £7.99; New York: Picador, 2004, ISBN 0312424671, 448 pps., $14.00.
Andrea Levy’s earlier novels focused on the experiences of the daughters of Jamaican migrants to London. With Fruit of the Lemon, she began the backward glance towards her parents’ generation, which she explores more fully here in her fourth novel, Small Island, a story about post-war Jamaican migration to London. Told in four distinct voices—female, male, Jamaican, English—the novel captures the experience of those who migrate and the changes migration brings to the ‘small island’ that Britain becomes.
The four main characters are complexly and sympathetically drawn, yet they are also emblematic of their origins and of the interactions between England and her colonies at this particular time in history. We first meet the white English female character, the appropriately named Victoria, known as Queenie, before WWII when she is a child and follow her into adulthood, when she marries a man with the apt surname of Bligh. Hortense is the female half of the Jamaican couple that migrates to London in 1948; she follows her husband Gilbert six months after his arrival on the SS Empire Windrush (the same ship on which Levy’s own father arrived). Despite all her education and pride in her ‘proper English’ ways, Hortense ‘reels’ from her encounter with London. Similarly, Gilbert is shocked to learn that, although he has been educated to know English culture intimately, ‘England does not know’ him.
Levy does a wonderful job not only interweaving the stories of her four protagonists, but also showing how Hortense and Gilbert negotiate London spaces. Gilbert, thinking he spots a precious jewel upon the pavement, stoops to pick it up, only to find that what glitter are flies feasting on a pile of dog shit. Hortense, who is a proud woman who expects to be treated like the lady she has been raised to be, is advised to step off the pavement to make way for white English people.
Gilbert and Hortense find a barely adequate room in Queenie’s dilapidated house and encounter many difficulties finding work in London. Hortense’s teacher training counts for nought, and Gilbert is subjected to racial harassment on the job. Hortense and Gilbert will struggle to find a place for themselves in London, though it is not the place they imagined. Similarly the white English characters will find that the London they know is also changing.
By far the most complex of her novels, Small Island richly deserves all the accolades and prizes that have been heaped upon it. These include the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Whitbread Book of the Year award and the Commonwealth Writer’s prize.
Zadie Smith, On Beauty, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2005, ISBN 0241142938 (hbk), 464 pps., £16.99; New York: The Penguin Press, 2005, ISBN 1594200637 (hbk), 446 pps., $25.95.
Those who read Zadie Smith’s earlier novels for their representations of London will be disappointed by her third novel, On Beauty, set mostly in the fictional academic town of Wellington, resembling Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to Harvard University, where the author had a lecturing stint. The instant-replay plot is an updated version of E. M. Forster’s Howards End (1910) in which the Belseys and the Kippses take the parts of the families in conflict. Howard Belsey, the protagonist, is a white British academic who has settled in Wellington with his African American wife and their three children, while the conservative Monty Kipps is a Trinidadian Londoner who has recently arrived in town.
London does make a couple of appearances. Early in the novel, Howard rushes off to London to convince his son not to marry the young woman on whom he has set his sights. (This produces the same embarrassing effect as Forster’s busybody aunt meddling in the affairs of her niece, Helen Schlegel.) We see the metropolis through Howard’s eyes, those of a transplanted Londoner who revels in the quintessential Englishness and Londonness at the moment of return. As he sniffs the winter air and pockets the scarf he brought with him, he observes a Boston tourist too warmly dressed for a London winter and self-righteously congratulates himself for his superior London knowledge.
Yet Howard is out of place: he cannot fathom the new Dalston to which upmarket types take taxis. The Dalston he grew up in is described as a wretched slum he was eager to escape. When Howard and his family return to London briefly in the third section of the novel, we get glancing descriptions of Hampstead Heath, Queen’s Park and Willesden Green. The Belsey children are struck by how much more racially mixed the event they are attending in North London is than it would be in the States. Howard leaves the event to walk to Cricklewood, where his father now lives. Theoretically proud of his working-class roots, Howard cannot connect with them or with his father — or much else — and he thus fails to respond adequately to Forster’s exhortation — ‘only connect’ — to which Smith subscribes.
Smith’s latest will appeal to those who enjoy her exuberance and delight in her ability to mimic speech patterns—here expanded to North America — and to spot the latest trends. Her novel is full of big ideas about beauty, art and the academy and is populated by a large number of characters who become vehicles for these ideas. Like all of Smith’s work, On Beauty is ultimately more intellectually stimulating than emotionally engaging.
Diana Evans, 26a, London: Chatto & Windus, 2005, ISBN 0701177969 (hbk), 230pp., £12.99; New York: William Morrow, 2005, ISBN 0060820918 (hbk), 288 pps, $23.95.
26a — the title of Diana Evans’s novel — refers to the part of the house on Waifer Avenue in Neasden, where the twin protagonists, Georgia and Bessi Hunter, live. Their loft provides a place apart where their special bond flourishes. The twins seek refuge from their angry father, Aubrey, who hails from Derbyshire, and their mother, Ida, who is homesick for her native Nigeria. In a household of clashing parental personalities, the twins provide each other with constant comfort and support, and occasionally allow their sisters, Bel and Kemy, the sanctuary of 26a.
While much of the novel takes place inside the family house on Waifer Avenue, the characters enter various parts of the city. In 26a, London represents both escape and loss. Aubrey escaped from his parents’ repressive household by coming to London at the age of 29. Ida’s relation to the city is mixed. While she ran away to escape an arranged marriage, she has also lost her village and family. Yet towards the end of the novel, she begins to enter into London’s public spaces in a new way. As the girls grow, they venture out into Central London. Yet the city streets also draw the twins apart. While Georgia retreats, Bessi embraces the city as she begins to explore the wider world.
This is a touching story, with some quite lyrical, and even mystical, passages, about a family’s desire to protect its members even as they move into the world beyond 26a.
Naomi Alderman, Disobedience, London: Viking (Penguin), 2006, ISBN 0-670-91628-5 (hbk), 259 pp., £12.99
Ronit Krushka, the protagonist of Naomi Alderman’s first novel, Disobedience, is caught between two places and two contrasting ways of life—her native Orthodox Jewish community of Hendon in northwest London and her adopted city of Manhattan, where she leads a secular life and where everybody is ‘a little bit Jewish’.
Several years before the start of the novel, Ronit left Hendon where her father was not just a rabbi, but the Rav, the learned and highly respected spiritual leader of his community. We meet Ronit upon the death of her father, to whom she has not spoken in years. Upon her return to Hendon, we are introduced to her cousin Dovid, the Rav’s heir apparent, and to her very special childhood friend, Esti. The plot revolves around Ronit’s relationship with Dovid and Esti, her dead father, her community and her sense of identity.
That we cannot always approve of Ronit makes this a complex book: it would have been too easy to see Orthodoxy as purely oppressive and Ronit’s choice as an unadulterated break for voice and freedom. Instead, as Ronit returns to Hendon for the period of mourning following her father’s death, we see that she does not always make the best moral decisions — nor do her frum counterparts in the Orthodox community. For example, Ronit hurls a lie about living a lesbian life in New York at some of the more self-satisfied members of the community for the sheer pleasure of shocking them. Similarly, some community members spread rumours about Ronit and Esti, even though they know that it is forbidden to do so.
The novel’s complexity of characterisation and theme is bolstered by the two voices (and type faces) in which the book is written. Ronit’s first person voice interweaves with a (mostly) third person omniscient narrative voice. The alternating voices deepen our understanding of the protagonist’s conflict and also offer an interpretation of the Orthodox way of life. For me, a secular Jewish reader, this provided an appreciation of some aspects of ordered Orthodox life — for example the meaning of Shabbat — and even a glimmer of an atavistic longing for something I know I could not live. Despite her conflicts, by the end of the book, Ronit’s relationship with God and Jewish practice is a comforting one. She knows that she cannot be an Orthodox Jew, yet she finds ‘something fierce and old and tender about that life that keeps calling me back, and I suppose it always will’.
It is not only Ronit who changes, but also Esti and Dovid, and to some small degree the community itself. The novel is compelling not only because of the characters’ journeys, but also because of the Hendon setting, where most of it takes place. The excursion into Camden Town that Esti makes one Friday afternoon just before the start of Shabbat, illustrates the separateness of this world and contrasts sharply with life in Hendon where time and spatial relations are strictly ordered. In Hendon, time is divided between the six days of work and the day of rest. In the synagogue, space is separated by sex, with the men on the main floor and the women in the ladies’ gallery. Hendon does not know the anonymity that characterises much of London; rather it is a village where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Yet, the narrator suggests that the specificity of Hendon is transcended by something larger:
Hendon does not exist; it is only where we are, which is the least of all ways to describe us. Nonetheless there is a kind of beauty here, in the scratched-open places and the remains of agriculture. All beauty touches the human heart, be it only so small as an ant or a spider. Our ancestors, we can be sure, felt a sense of it in Poland or in Russia, in Spain and Portugal and Egypt and Syria and Babylon and Rome. Why should we regret that we find a sort of kindness in the tamed land of Hendon? It is not our place, and we are not its people, but we have found affection here. And, as Kind David told us, God is in all places, high and low, distant and near at hand. As sure as He is anywhere, God is in Hendon.
Naomi Alderman’s novel will make readers, wherever they locate themselves on a spiritual or ethnic continuum, question what they know about the ‘right’ way to live, about the meanings of silence and voice, freedom and constraint, and about the choices we make in life. Disobedience is such an engrossing novel that, while reading it on the subway in that other city in which Ronit’s story takes place, I actually missed my stop.
To Cite This Article:
Susan Alice Fischer, ‘Review – Briefly Noted: Recent London Fiction from Andrea Levy, Zadie Smith, Diana Evans, and Naomi Alderman’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 4 Number 1 (March 2006). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2006/fischer.html. Accessed on [date of access]