Sunday, April 5, 2015

Andrea Levy’s "Small Island", Jayne Anne Phillips’ novels

Excellent writers who 
unconsciously disappoint in some works

Andrea Levy
     Andrea Levy’s Small Island (2004) won the Orange Prize, which is given to female writers (yes, lots of controversy about that from a wide swath of political stripes, but I’m not going there) and then the Orange of Oranges (the British really get into that best of best mentality because they had the biggest empire of all until relatively recently).  It’s set before, during, and immediately after World War II in England and Jamaica – a proud dominion of the British
Empire, at least during that period.  It was highly recommended by a number of those “books to think about reading” guides so I thought I’d give it a try.

     Levy writes in the voices of the four main characters – a white English couple in London (Queenie and Bernard) and a black Jamaican couple (Hortense and Gilbert) that immigrates to England.  She captures the rhythms, dialects, and vocabularies of these characters impeccably.  The sequences focusing on the males – one in Jamaica as the war starts, the other stuck in India after the war officially ended, but before he could be demobilized – are remarkable because they offer such original insight to that period and the vastness of the Empire’s culture in the early twentieth century.  However, most stay at home Brits would never have given it much of a second thought.  Levy shows and doesn’t editorialize about this attitude in her prologue featuring Queenie, the white, lower middle class Englishwoman from the countryside.  

     Levy’s historical research reveals some long buried details concerning life in England during the war.  One major episode centers on the bullying aspect of American culture – namely in terms of race relations concerning people of African or Caribbean descent – on the ordinary English as three characters go to a showing of Gone with the Wind (1939), which I remember my Nana saying played throughout the war.  The balance of democratic power had already shifted to the American empire and that is displayed throughout Gilbert’s sections.  

The Characters in the BBC Version
     Where I had problems with the book was in the character of Hortense because she’s such a stuck-up, insecure pill.  I wanted her to get her comeuppance though, by the time she did, I felt a greater empathy for her.  It didn’t look like a long book at first, but it was a slog to get through because of that character.  The story ends in 1948 with a situation that had me wishing it had been the beginning with flash-forwards to what might happen to these people in twenty years during the Swinging Sixties or thirty years later during the Brixton riots.  I would, however, read another of Levy’s novels.

Jayne Anne Phillips

     I’ve found myself rethinking Jayne Anne Phillips’ Machine Dreams (1984) and Shelter (1994) while reading them.  They’re filled with beautifully rendered yet endless descriptions of locales as well as character driven scenes that don’t advance the plot.

Both end with sequences that needed to show up much earlier because they engender consequences that are not presented, which left me wondering what happened next.  On the other hand, Black Tickets (1979) is one of the half dozen best short story collections I’ve ever read.

   It may seem cruel to hold certain writers to account (usually the excellent ones) and think about editing or revising their work, while letting some of the dreary ones get away with mediocrity.  The difference is that I won’t read a second book by one of the mediocrities.

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