The triumph of `the bastard child of Empire'

Review Novel

February 25, 2007|By Celia McGee | Celia McGee,Los Angeles Times

Fruit of the Lemon

Andrea Levy

Picador / 339 pages / $15 paper

As history steps along, the map of the world has to be redrawn again and again. Recent discoveries and changes are less geographical than social and ethnic, in some places exposing sad or dangerous fault lines, in others amassing new ways of seeing or living. Emigration and immigration have become hard to tell apart. Identity is up for grabs. The self in the post-colonial tangle of relations extends a challenge and a bounty to many writers.

As an English novelist of Afro-Caribbean descent, Andrea Levy launches her works with great aplomb into the shifting seas of the concept formerly known as the British Empire. Her last novel, Small Island, won the Orange Prize, the Whitbread Prize and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. Fruit of the Lemon, her new one, follows exceptionally well in its footsteps, a work that feels of a piece with Small Island and its story of Jamaicans in post-World War II England while carving a fresh niche where new characters can breathe and grow.

Faith Jackson counts herself entirely at home on English soil. Everything about it is her home, several times over: her immigrant Jamaican parents' initial public housing apartment, where she and her older brother were born, then the "house in a proper street that they were so proud of they sent pictures of it to relatives with invitations to come and stay."

Currently there's the groovy group house she's sharing with several other 20-somethings, who are definitely not the nice girls from similar backgrounds she has assured her parents they are (they're, um, not all girls, actually). Homelike, to Faith, is also the communal household's racial mix: She's the only person of color, and that's fine with her.

Not that she doesn't love her strict, overprotective parents - it's just that they're not coming from where she's at in the hip, artsy bohemia of Thatcherite England. Besides their Caribbean backgrounds, the separate and linked pasts they cautiously never speak of, they have different expectations for Faith than she does for herself (just as a for instance, marriage to a nice young Jamaican man who works for her father in his painting and decorating concern, and shows up unannounced one evening, shoes brightly polished, sweet face ill at ease).

Wade and Mildred Jackson could be Gilbert and Hortense Joseph, the couple at the unforgettable heart of Small Island, stepping forward to suggest that the earlier novel might, now that there's this one, be turning into a trilogy, or something longer, a hypermodern saga of Victorian reach. They are older and wiser, except - as is the case with so many parents - about their children and the present they've handed them. At least that's Faith's opinion.

Her ambitions fly in the face of the domestic hearth's gentle assumptions. She has ambitions: For one, having graduated from art school with a degree in textile design, she eventually sets her sights on a job at the BBC, starting out as a staffer in the wardrobe department. Levy does a humorous and occasionally devastating number on the inner workings of the august broadcasting system.

Faith aspires to move up in the hierarchy; attaining a position as a dresser is next. Some wishful thought also tells her that her housemate Simon - an upper-class dreamboat who takes her home to a houseful of ancestor portraits and a mudroomful of wellies for a Brideshead Revisited-style weekend - could evolve into more than a friend.

But Levy's tiny, subtle hints that Faith's fluid existence of open-minded living arrangements, cross-cultural friendships and easy socializing is no race-blind utopia are suddenly foregrounded when Faith is told there are no black dressers. Her carefully constructed self-image unravels, until her parents come to rescue her, huddled in her darkened room, her mirrors covered with fabric - in some cultures a symbol of mourning, in Faith's depressed state a need to block out her own face.

Levy's choice of Faith's schooling and job can't have been unintentional; the idea of costuming, disguises, guises and appearances seeps back and forth between real events and the emotional exploration Faith is sent off on by her parents. Slyly and surreptitiously, Wade and Mildred, who have already startled Faith by announcing they might move back to Jamaica, get her invited to spend two weeks on the island with an aunt.

Once she gets there, the second half of the novel introduces her to family member after family member she never knew and, more important, never knew existed, and to a family history teeming with even more memorable figures than poor predictable Simon has hanging in the paintings on the walls of his gated patrician estate.

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