By Nyambura Mutanyi

Because of the reach of the British Empire, there were two sorts of people that Soyinka references in his poem ‘Telephone Conversation’: those from the Caribbean and those from Africa. In Small Island, Andrea Levy examines the lives some of the former; what they left, for what they left and who they found on their arrival in England.

Levy introduces us to four rich characters in this well-crafted tale of race, love, life, friendship, loyalty, displacement and empire. Each character lends fullness to a story that segues between 1948 and the time before the wars. Black or White, their voices ring out with a clarity that makes the book captivating. This ability to inhabit the skin of her characters-Black, White, male, female-calls to mind Carson McCullers’ triumph in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Speaking in each of her characters’ voices, she manages to be faithful to the humanity and uniqueness of their experiences while remaining true to the constraints, attitudes and aspirations of a time when the world was a much different place.

Those of us who read Velma Pollard’s Homestretch have a feel of the Jamaican experience in post-World War II England. Levy affords us the chance to learn the roots of that history as played out by two couples-Jamaicans Gilbert and Hortense and the English Bernard and Queenie. Jamaica celebrated 50 years of independence during this year’s Olympics and the clamour for that independence is shown through a different lens; that of the ones who left. Emigration is a common story in Jamaica (some among us will remember this song) but its effects are very rarely viewed from both sides: that of the emigrants and that of the citizens of their host country. Levy paints a poignant, funny, incisive, memorable picture of the paths that cross as lives are transformed in the face of the hardships of a war-torn country.

It is so often stated that it is the victors that write the history that is passed down. Levy manages, in this tale, to give a sense of the true cost of war even on those that emerge victorious. The promises that are reneged upon, the hard lessons learnt, the retelling that occurs over time. She paints a picture of loyalty to Empire that our post-Wikileaks world will find strange and charts the fall of Britannia in an evocative fashion. In this book, the journey of self discovery is shown to be a consuming task. The women who find out what sexual liberation means, the men who work to assert themselves in a world where they feel uprooted, the nation that is at pains as to what to do with its biracial children. Show me a nation with a pretty history and I will show you the substance of delusion, Levy’s book seems to state. Reality can be jolting and the ride that Levy takes the reader on shows just how many truths can be gleaned from one story.

For some reason, Levy found it fit to cast an influential character in a position of improbable coincidence. This felt like a refusal to seek out the limits of the imagination in a story with such a wealth of complexity. The interaction of the races, even in the face of this improbability, is true to the times in which the book is set. Levy manages, over and over, to reveal the roots of subjugation and to show how each individual plays a role in the progress of a society. Britain before it was proud to be multicultural is shown to have been a unwelcoming place for the Black person but the experiences of the war remind the reader of a greater truth: across the pond, matters were much worse.

This book is a brilliantly written study in history, race, progress and the cost these exert on people. It has a resonance in the modern world that makes it well worth a contemplative read.

You can listen to the author speaking about the book courtesy of the BBC’s World Book Club here.

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