Six Stories and an Essay by Andrea Levy – A review, part two
This is an ultra-slim volume of just 120 pages, 94 of which contain the stories, all set in large type. At first glance this is not much of a challenge to either the writer or the reader. In her preface, Levy seems to be preparing us for their shortness. She quotes Mark Twain or possibly Cicero, she thinks, in saying: “I’d write you a shorter letter, but I haven’t the time”, implying that restricting the stories took considerable effort, and then claiming that “Short stories can be as consuming as any novel”. Hmmm. I disagree on this second point.
Adding to the stories, there are some great black and white photographs including shots of the author’s parents, herself as a child ballerina, West Indian immigrants arriving at Southampton dock, women at the market place in Jamaica 1933 and West Indian troops stacking shells at Ypres in the First World War.
West Indian troops in WWI, photo via the Imperial War Museum
In most cases, the stories behind the stories are the real sources of interest. In the introduction to The Empty Pram, Levy pokes fun at narrow-mindedness and an over conservative publishing industry. Around the time of writing Small Island, Levy was commissioned to write a story for a magazine, but her work was ultimately turned down by the editor on the grounds of being a) “not suitable for her readers” b) “too controversial” and c) “too risky for the women of England”. So, we have the story in print here, and we can be the judge of its various qualities. The story itself is readable, but nowhere near as rewarding a read as Levy’s Orange prize-winning novel.
Prefacing That Polite Way That English People Have, Levy tells us that she intended this story to be read out at the Southbank Centre, in a Jamaican accent which she learnt from her mother. Levy reports that her mother denied speaking like that and did not want to have such an accent. Like many immigrants in the past, it would seem, her mother was determined to give up part of herself in order to fit in and sound as if she belonged in Britain.
Andrea Levy, photo via the BBC
Levy really opens up in this tale. She explores immigration and changing lifestyles, as seen through the character of Blossom Hunter. From cracked eggs frying on the pavement in Jamaica to drinking tea in china cups and eating cake with a fork in Britain. Blossom’s prior knowledge of England also includes golden daffodils, Hyde Park, cricket at Lord’s, red buses, Trafalgar Square. Blossom is seeking to rise above her station, to join a “better class”. She is on a voyage to the Mother Country, under her real name, Hortense Hunter (a prototype of her namesake in Small Island). She meets and is humiliated by a Petal, a rough, lower class fellow traveller. And then she arrives in port.
At the end of this episode in Hortense’s life, I really want to find out what happens next. This is my kind of story; a contrast in lifestyles, skilful and beautiful description, a difficult challenge to overcome, conflict, plenty of angst and ambivalence surrounding the heroine’s future beyond the narrative.
And so to the final story in the collection. Uriah’s War is for me the most substantial and most serious story here, and one which raises awareness of a major chapter in Black British Caribbean history. In the introduction, Levy refers to the participation of Jamaicans in the First World War. She was “struck by the patriotism and courage of the West Indian men who volunteered to fight for the British Empire”, and states “Their contribution must not be overlooked”. Levy’s grandfather was at the Somme. This is a personal, poignant and powerful story, based on considerable research.
The story contains horrific action and gruesome details. “Then Gallimore’s head blasted open”. But Levy goes beyond the horrors of war, and tackles injustice in the form of colonialism and within the ranks. When considering the question ‘why fight for Britain and a shilling a day ?’ Uriah, a West Indian soldier explains “the Empire was our protector, that is how we thought. England was great, sort of thing.”
But many West Indian recruits were used as labourers and received little or no protection in return. They were on the front line, in danger amidst the crashing shells, but not armed. Not in combat, but just as vulnerable and bereft of dignity. Black troops were also denied privileges in camp, despite having been “bombed, shelled and shot at for the glory of the Empire”.
In the end, following this senseless death of his compatriot Uriah, Walker revises his loyalties. “In consequence I turn my back upon Britain, my Motherland. The place I once believed was the seat of all that was good in my life. And turn my face to my island home of Jamaica.” He continues : “This war was fought for the principles of democracy and freedom. I now demand those principles for the black man”. Walker had believed that the sacrifice of black people for the Empire would be uplifting, but instead it led to feeling enslaved.
I have mixed feelings about this collection of short stories. The blurb claims that they demonstrate the author’s “trademark lightness of touch”. This may be so, but they also show a lightness of substance in some cases. Several of the stories are largely observational anecdotes which capture the imagination with only varying degrees of success. Brevity and punchiness are not Levy’s strongest points.
Collecting stories from across her career is also only partially successful. There is a big helping of nostalgia, which is fascinating and engaging, but it does not necessarily make for great short stories. More contemporary zest would be welcomed. A new novel would be welcomed even more, but I know I push too hard.
For me, Levy’s best stories come from her extensive appreciation of history and from her experiences in developing as a writer. What she does best is research and storify.
Uriah’s War is the finest story in the collection by far. In increasing our knowledge of the role of West India troops in WW1, Levy is using fiction as “a corrective to the historical record” (Times Literary Supplement). This is her greatest strength, creating powerful, engaging, realist fiction. By filling in some of the missing parts of our history, Levy demands decency and fairness for all, in both everyday life and in the most horrific of circumstances.
Eddie Hewitt © 2015