50 Andrea Levy (1956–2019)
Andrea Levy was an English novelist, born in London to Jamaican parents who sailed to England in 1948. Levy’s novels frequently explore topics related to members of the Jamaican diaspora in England and the ways in which they negotiate racial, cultural, and national identities.
Andrea Levy was of primarily Afro-Jamaican descent. She had a Jewish paternal grandfather and a Scots maternal great-grandfather.
Growing up on a council estate in Highbury, London, she attended Highbury Hill Grammar School, “ate a lot of sweets, watched a lot of soap operas and ‘lived the life of an ordinary London working-class girl.’” In her mid-20s, she worked for a social institution where she encountered racist attacks. She also worked part-time in the costume departments of the BBC and the Royal Opera House while starting a graphic design company with her husband, Bill Mayblin. During this time, she experienced a form of awakening to her identity concerning both her gender and her race. She also became aware of the power of books and began to read “excessively”: it was easy enough to find literature by black writers from the United States, but she could find very little literature from black writers in the United Kingdom.
Levy began writing only in her mid-30s, having enrolled in a creative writing class at the City Lit in 1989, continuing on the course for seven years.
When Levy’s first novel, the semi-autobiographical Every Light in the House Burnin′, was published in 1994, it attracted favourable reviews.
Levy’s second novel, Never Far from Nowhere (1996), is a coming-of-age story about two sisters of Jamaican parentage growing up in London in the 1970s. The novel is narrated from the perspectives of Vivian and Olive and chronicles their difficulties living in 1970s England. The narrative focuses specifically on the physical differences between the sisters in terms of skin colour, eye colour, and hair type, which causes them to be treated differently by British people, and the ways in which they negotiate and constitute racial and national identities. The novel was long-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction. After its publication, Levy visited Jamaica for the first time, and what she learned of her family’s past provided material for her next book.
Fruit of the Lemon (1999), a novel set in England and Jamaica in the Thatcher era, “explores the notion of home, and how it differs for the formerly colonized and their descendants,” as The New York Times noted. “Though Levy writes specifically about black Jamaican Britons and their struggles to be acknowledged as full members of the larger society, her novel illuminates the general situation facing all children of postcolonial immigrants across the West, from the banlieue of France to the Islamic neighborhoods of New York to the Hispanic ghettos of Los Angeles.”
Levy’s fourth novel, Small Island (2004), put her in a new major literary league. As Mike Phillips wrote in The Guardian: “Small Island is a great read, delivering the sort of pleasure which has been the traditional stock-in-trade of a long line of English novelists. It’s honest, skilful, thoughtful and important. This is Andrea Levy’s big book.” It won three prestigious awards: Whitbread Book of the Year, the Orange Prize, and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. The novel was subsequently made into a two-part television drama that was broadcast by the BBC in December 2009.
Levy’s fifth novel, The Long Song, won the 2011 Walter Scott Prize and was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. The Daily Telegraph called it a “sensational novel… [that] tells the life story of July, a slave girl living on a sugar plantation in 1830s Jamaica just as emancipation is juddering into action.” Kate Kellaway in The Observer commented: “The Long Song reads with the sort of ebullient effortlessness that can only be won by hard work.” The Washington Post reviewer, calling it “insightful and inspired,” went on to say that the work “reminds us that she is one of the best historical novelists of her generation.” The Long Song was adapted as a three-part BBC One television series that was broadcast in December 2018.
Her short book Six Stories and an Essay was published in 2014, described by Katy Guest in The Independent as “a slight collection, but full of important insights.”
Andrea Levy died on February 14, 2019.
You can read the full text here: Andrea Levy’s “Loose Change” [PDF].
- Describe the narrator. What is her probable profession? Racial origin?
- Describe Laylor.
- Why do you think Laylor likes the picture of the English ballerina Darcey Bussell (b. 1949)?
- Why are Laylor and her brother in London?
- The narrator assumes that Laylor had sought her out, “sifted [her] from the crowd”? Do you agree? Why or why not? Provide evidence.
- How has the narrator’s grandmother changed from when she had been without shelter as an immigrant?
- Comment on the ladies who complain of too much froth in their coffee. Why does Levy place this detail at this point in the story?
- Why does the narrator decide to be benevolent to Laylor?
- Why does she suddenly decide not to help her?
- What is the theme of the story?
- Log on to the website of the National Portrait Gallery in London. Comment on the portrait of Darcey Bussell. Then look at the online portraits of the figures mentioned on this site or elsewhere (mostly contemporary writers such as Bennett, Greer, and Byatt).
- Read Katherine Mansfield’s story “A Cup of Tea” (above), which describes a similar encounter between two women; then write an essay comparing/contrasting Mansfield’s Rosemary Fell and the unnamed protagonist of “Loose Change.”
- Look at the various contextual activities provided by the British Council in the kit that accompanies this story at the Teaching English “Loose Change” site.
- Biography: “Andrea Levy” by Wikipedia. Adapted by James Sexton. © Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Licence