Thursday, August 24, 2017

Every Light in the House Burnin' by Andrea Levy: Review

I have to admit that the first thing that attracted me to Andrea Levy when I saw one of her books for the first time was the cover. I usually dislike movie/television adaptation covers, but the television adaptation cover for her book Small Island was unique. I'll post that cover below. It features a group of people of color in 1940's dress that appear to be in England. That immediately caught my eye. I know very little of English history, and even less about the role black people played in the history of England. I enjoy historical fiction and to run across one written by a black British woman and featuring black people, meant that it was a book and author that I wanted to try. When I went and looked through her backlist, I decided to start with her earlier work and make my way through. And yes, it is partly because all of the covers are lovely!

In Every Light in the House is Burnin', Levy addresses family dynamics in a low key but impactful way. She also addresses social issues and how they affect the family in general. Levy exposes how sly and covert bigotry and racism can be via an interaction between Angela and her friend when she was young that really stood out for me. The scene was early in the story, but it really made an impact on me because of how subtly it was done. I felt how uncomfortable the exchange with Angela's friend Sonia and Sonia's mother made her feel. It really drove home how different and separate Angela must have felt in her small and mostly homogeneous community that she lived in. 

In Angela's family, most significant events and situations aren't faced head on. Most things are danced around and talked about in opaque ways. As if not talking about what is happening openly would make things less real. Angela's family embraced the idea that if you didn't directly acknowledge anything, then things aren't really that bad. It felt as if everyone in Angela's family were connected by blood, but were separated by personal interests and goals. 

Every Light in the House Burnin' was enjoyable in the way that Levy showed the very realistic way the family interacted with each other and how they dealt with life events. Getting everything from Angela's perspective as the youngest child was both poignant and funny at times. I look forward to reading more of Levy's work. 


'Better opportunity' - that's why Angela's dad sailed to England from America in 1948 on the Empire Windrush. Six months later her mum joined him in his one room in Earl's Court...

...Twenty years and four children later, Mr Jacob has become seriously ill and starts to move unsteadily through the care of the National Health Service. As Angela, his youngest, tries to help her mother through this ordeal, she finds herself reliving her childhood years, spent on a council estate in Highbury.

Small Island is the first book that I saw by Levy that caught my attention. After I get around to reading it, I'll have to find a way to watch the mini series. 

Hortense Joseph arrives in London from Jamaica in 1948 with her life in her suitcase, her heart broken, her resolve intact. Her husband, Gilbert Joseph, returns from the war expecting to be received as a hero, but finds his status as a black man in Britain to be second class. His white landlady, Queenie, raised as a farmer's daughter, befriends Gilbert, and later Hortense, with innocence and courage, until the unexpected arrival of her husband, Bernard, who returns from combat with issues of his own to resolve.

Told in these four voices, Small Island is a courageous novel of tender emotion and sparkling wit, of crossings taken and passages lost, of shattering compassion and of reckless optimism in the face of insurmountable barriers---in short, an encapsulation of that most American of experiences: the immigrant's life. 

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