It seems pertinent this week to review two books which take immigration to the UK as one of their central themes. The first is a timely reminder of Britain’s appalling behaviour in the world and that Jamaicans fought alongside us in both wars and then were encouraged to come to the UK to make up labour shortages following World War II. The second is as much about gender as it is race and considers what it’s like to establish a life so far from home.
Six Stories and an Essay – Andrea Levy
In the essay which begins this slim volume, Levy recalls her childhood, using it to examine the disparity between her parents arrival in Britain and her feelings on the integration of the Caribbean community in the UK.
They believed in order to get on in this country they should live quietly and not make a fuss. They should assimilate and be as respectable as they possibly could. Clean the front step every week. Go to church on Sundays. Keep their children well dressed and scrubbed behind the ears.
Teenage Levy’s sense of being an outsider comes from her working class upbringing. It isn’t until she’s on a racism awareness course at work and joins ‘the white side of the room’ that she begins to explore her experience of being black in Britain. This coincided with her taking a writing course as a hobby.
I am now happy to be called a black British writer, and the fiction I have written has all been about my Caribbean heritage in some way or another.
She points out that the social mix created from the relationship Britain developed with the Caribbean – one of slavery and exploitation initially, followed by a whole range of people moving to the islands – has been erased from our history books.
Levy states her aim for this book (and, I assume, the rest of her work) at the end of the essay:
My heritage is Britain’s story too. It is time to put the Caribbean back where it belongs – in the main narrative of British history.
The stories that follow revolve around ideas of power, of fear and of erasure. The first two, The Diary and Deborah show the power of secrets and how they can be used to get what you want – through a diary belonging to a famous actor and extracting violent retribution on a friend in fear of what your father might do to you.
The Polite Way that English People Have introduces Hortense from Small Island on the boat on her way to England. Here she realises her status is going to be reduced in the UK and in The Empty Pram a character who could be Hortense discovers the suspicion she’ll be subjected to simply for being from another country.
Loose Change takes a refugee from Uzbekistan and puts her in conversation with a woman who has the power to help her, while February reveals the erasure of Levy’s mother’s experience by a white teacher and the collection ends with Uriah’s War where the experience of two Jamaican soldiers in the First World War is erased by a sergeant on their return.
Levy introduces the reader to a range of characters and situations. What they all have in common is a sense of erasure or othering by someone, largely due to race but with regards to class. It’s an interesting mix of subjects and one in which Levy begins to explore Caribbean narratives which are expanded upon in Small Island.
Thanks to Tinder Press for the review copy.
Brick Lane – Monica Ali
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003 (yes, it has taken me this long to read this book), Brick Lane tells the story of Nazneen’s marriage to Chanu and their move from Bangladesh to Tower Hamlets, London in 1985.
When they arrive in London, eighteen-year-old Nazneen can say only two words in English, sorry and thank you. She is befriended by the rebellious Razia and by Mrs Islam who ‘knew everything about everybody’ but is largely confined to the flat.
Forty-year-old Chanu is pompous. Considering himself an intellectual, he invites the local doctor for dinner, assuming he can see his way to helping Chanu get a promotion at work. While he desires something better for himself and, therefore, his wife, he doesn’t understand why Nazneen would want to learn English. She spends her days looking forward to letters from her sister and seeing that Chanu’s needs are met.
‘Ish’, said Chanu, breathing sharply. ‘Did you draw blood?’ He looked closely at his little toe. He wore only his pyjama bottoms and sat on the bed. Nazneen knelt to the side with a razor blade in her hand. It was time to cut her husband’s corns again. She sliced through the semi-translucent skin, the build-up around the yellow core, and gathered the little dead bits in the palm of her hand.
The couple has two children and the novel follows Nazneen and Chanu as their children grow. Chanu is determined that they will know about their heritage and determinedly teaches them about Bangladesh, much to his daughter’s irritation. His plans to improve their situation in London lead to him becoming entangled with Mrs Islam and her business interests whilst Nazneen discovers what it’s like to be in love.
Ali explores identity and how it’s formed. She considers how relationships are formed far from home when you find yourself part of a community living closely with some you might not have socialised with in alternate circumstances. She portrays a marriage without love but with some affection and the conflict that children can bring as they grow. Brick Lane is an engrossing read and an interesting portrait of a young woman discovering who she is and what she wants from life.