This fine novel from 1994 follows the pre and post WWII fortunes of two marriages of convenience; one black, one white. Levy constantly switches perspective in terms of time -‘before’ and ‘1948’ – and point of view with first person narratives from each of the four protagonists- Gilbert, Hortense in the black corner; Queenie and Bernard in the white.

The former couple are from the small island of Jamaica, while Queenie and Bernard are from the small island of Britain.

At times this structure gives the novel a overly rigid structure and I found myself impatient to read the more compelling black experience and irritated by the time devoted to the more predicable views of the small minded Bernard.

The perspective of Hortense is the one which comes across as the most poignant and significant voice of this foursome.  Having done a 3 year residential training course in Kingston, Hortense arrives in London naively believing this will qualify her to teach in the UK.  She is a proud and determined woman with skin “the colour of warm honey” and a haughty disposition. She likes to think her English is superior to the “low-class slurring garble” of Cockneys but comes out with archaic constructions like “this is perchance where he is abiding” which obviously makes communication with the locals a less than smooth ride.

Her marriage to Gilbert is her idea because it allows her the possibility to leave Jamaica, something that would have been impossible on her own. She does not intend that sexual relations be part of the deal. On their wedding night when Gilbert stands naked before her she is repulsed : “If a body in its beauty is the work of God then this hideous predicament between his legs was without doubt the work of the devil”. Gilbert does not force himself on her; proving that he may be a rough and ready type but he’s  a decent man at heart.

Queenie’s marriage to Bernard is consummated but their relationship is nevertheless devoid of passion. He is seen as good match solely through his lower middle class white collar status (he’s a bank clerk) –  a step up from the poorer working class background of Queenie. Bernard’s racism is reinforced by his wartime experiences in India where he regards all the locals as thieves, beggars or murderers.  In his absence, Queenie is the bridge between the black-white divide, taking in black lodgers (and a lover) in defiance of her bigoted neighbours. Hers is a rare voice of racial tolerance.

For we are left in no doubt that the consensus among the British at that time is that a white skin denoted civilisation while blacks belong to the servant classes.  Contemptuous put-downs like ‘coon’, ‘nigger’, darkies’ ‘coolies’ and ‘wogs’ are routinely deployed, laying to rest  any notion that the race issue was a problem confined to America.

It’s clear that non-whites were tolerated while fighting the common enemy of Nazism yet otherwise  routinely branded as impurities within the ‘master race'(sic) of the British Empire.

In one pivotal sequence in the novel Queenie and a Jamaican RAF man go to the cinema together and he is told that he must sit with all the other blacks in the back rows so as not to disturb the white folk. It’s quite shocking to think that such open discrimination was so commonplace in Britain, quite a departure from the clichéd historical accounts that portray Brits as models of fair play and justice.

Frequently Gilbert and Hortense encounter children and adults who point, poke and gibe them as though there were freaks or wild animals. At one point Gilbert longs to return to Jamaica where he would feel normal again:: “No gapes, no gawps, no cussing, no looking quickly away as if seeing something unsavoury. Just a meeting as unremarkable as passing your mummy in the kitchen. What a thing was this to wish for. That a person regarding me should think nothing. What a forlorn desire to seek indifference”.

The plot is somewhat contrived but  Levy’s book is highly readable and a vivid portrait of black experience in Britain. It is a reminder that the roots of prejudice and class conflict run deep.

The book is being adapted by the BBC as part of their welcome move away from endless costume dramas.

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