[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, Feb. 2014]
Andrea Levy’s "Every Light In The House Burnin’" is the dialoue-heavy story of a young north-London girl and her Jamaican immigrant parents as their traditional, conservative family makes its way into her young adulthood.
Seemingly largely autobiographical, the book is divided into simple sections such as "My Mum, My Brother, The Cat" and other standard features of a 20th century, inner-city life. What apparently makes Levy’s work prize-winning is her ability to create an authentic picture of such a life. Her characters and plot are ordinary enough for readers to easily relate to but not so ordinary that they are dull or predictable.
In "Every Light.." we are reminded about exactly how much of a family’s inner workings are unspoken and how much distance there often is between them – to a degree that would probably surprise a typically close-knit Mediterranean European family member. Angela, the narrator, is either ignored by her two older sisters or is mercilessly teased by them. To her great surprise, she only finds out that her father has a twin brother living in England near the end of her father’s life and he largely refuses to talk about him even then. Apart from with her mother and brother, Angela finds love, affection and generosity of spirit with a neighbour couple who are childless. She has to battle the racial taunts and exclusion of many of the local kids but does go on to enjoy the kind of outdoor urban play in the streets that so many kids are today deprived of.
A large part of the drama in the storyline is given to her father’s illness and how particularly Angela has to deal with the indifference of public health-care workers in a system that appears to be ultimately quite inhumane. At one point she fantasises about strangling one of the nurses. Her father (who mysteriously never speaks about his former life in the Carribean) has an equally mysterious job at the post office and chain-smokes as much as his income allows. His diagnosis clearly shows lung cancer, though Angela’s mother (a primary school teacher) never tells him about his life-threatening condition and he dies believing the only problem he ever had was a stroke.
Theirs is a religous family. Angela goes to Sunday School every week and in fact stays for all three services because she is a lead singer in the choir. As she gets older there is finally a boyfriend but he is chased away by her enraged father, who prefers to keep his softer emotions for the family cat. Another major theme in the book is the family’s housing. They spend most of Angela’s childhood cramped inside an absurdly small, old terrace and are only given the option of moving to a new place that is out in the middle of a semi-developed, almost uninhabited tenament estate or instead to go to a house that shakes like there’s an earthquake every time a train goes past the window.
Levy suceeds in getting across the flavour of the Jamaican Creole/patois dialogue that spices up family arguments and everyday interaction. She has written a book that shows a part of British society that has often been overlooked and typically under-represented in that country’s mainstream literature.