Second only to the birth of the Manchester Book Club back in April, two of the top highlights of last year were the boyfriend and I’s cheap and cheerful camping holidays. Like my smug book choices for our trip to Glastonbury in September, yesterday I found myself musing on one particularly gorgeous afternoon spent sat outside a wooden hut on Eigg in June, bottle of beer in one hand and Andrea Levy in the other…
Although it’s almost a lifetime since I finished Small Island, the pure enjoyment I got from Levy’s exploration of the migrant experience in post-war Britain lingers on….the perfect read for a lazy summer’s day. The vitality that the four-person narrative brings to the tale (chapters are alternately told from the point of view of London landlady Queenie Bligh, her husband Bernard, RAF recruit Gilbert Joseph and his wife Hortense) strikes the perfect chord and keeps the story rolling as we follow in Gilbert’s footsteps, facing the hard experience for the Jamaican ex-serviceman in bombed-out London head-on. Needless to say, poverty and racism are abound. Levy, however, delivers her story with sophistication.
Although this book felt like pure, simple entertainment whilst basking in the sun, this is a tale with a brain and a heart after all. Levy’s bridging of too disparate cultures appears effortless. As well as grasping into the heart of wartime London, the Jamaican steals the limelight, in all his/her tooth-sucking glory.
In a world where ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ were permitted entry into certain establishments, Queenie (not to be confused with Blackadder’s ‘Queenie’) is a breath of fresh air. Although we are occasionally bombarded with a little too much melodrama to be believed (e.g. cinema segregation between blacks/whites ending in a deadly shoot out in a village street) it is Queenie’s consistent frankness and transparent lack of prejudice that save the reader from the complete and utter disgust felt as we are reminded of the unacceptable ‘welcome’ smartly felt by many ex-servicemen from the colonies returning to the supposed ‘motherland’. Bernard’s very British brand of racism vs Hortense’s delusions of grandeur make for hard debate indeed.
DEBATE. That’s what we need. This would undoubtedly be a perfect choice for a book group. A hard-hitting subject combined with easy-going prose. Go on. Give it to your book group. Or even better. Read it on the beach (only English cider will do)….