I first heard about Andrea Levy my senior year of college — I was taking a history course aptly titled “Empire!: The British Colonial Experience.” And yes, the exclamation mark was definitely part of the title. Toward the end of the class, as we drew nearer and nearer to studying present-day England, my professor told us about the book Small Island, Levy’s take on the arrival of members of the British empire to the “Mother Country” in search of prosperity. For whatever reason, though, it was Levy’s earlier novel <Fruit of the Lemon I picked up later that May.
And it sat on my bookshelf for more than a year.
This is certainly no slight against Levy’s powerful book. I finished Fruit of the Lemon last night and, though I’m sure there were many parts of the book I didn’t quite “get” like I should, I found it to be a really interesting, impactful novel all the same.
The book centers around Faith Jackson, the British daughter of two Jamaican parents who moved to England as young adults. Faith knows little of her parents’ early lives in the Caribbean — and even less of their ancestors (and her own). She thinks little of being black in England, surrounded by white friends, colleagues and housemates. Faith is cocooned in her own world in London until her parents announce they’re considering a move back to Jamaica after decades away — effectively leaving Faith and her brother, Carl, alone in the “Mother Country.”
Levy’s work is powerful for both what it does and doesn’t say. Obviously I’ve never been a young woman living in Britain and struggling to break into fashion, but I am a young American woman struggling to break into publishing. It’s not that I need to fully relate to the characters of the books I read to enjoy them — but I do need to understand where they’re coming from.
And I did — after Faith journeyed to Jamaica.
As I said before, there were many parts of the book (images, symbolism, etc.) that I probably didn’t “get.” As an English major, it’s slightly embarrassing for me to admit that, but I guess I just didn’t have the brain for analyzation this week. All the same, I absolutely fell in love with Faith’s Aunt Coral and the entire easy, breezy and sunny world of Jamaica. When Faith leaves England to stay with her mother’s sister and the extended family she’s never met, I read with wide-eyed wonder as she stepped out of the dingy airport and into the arms of foreign relatives, trying local food and exploring the customs once favored by her parents. Faith falls into Jamaican life during her two week vacation and, toward the end of the novel, takes momentary pride when she effectively blends into the assembled crowd at a wedding. Until she’s outed for wearing pants to church.
Faith learns the stories of her parents, her parents’ parents, her nieces and cousins and uncles and aunts, piece by piece, brick by brick — each through eyes of alternating family members. Family trees interspersed throughout the novel helped me keep all the characters straight — because there were a ton. I kept my finger to mark the place of the charts as I was reading — I had to refer back to them pretty often, which did slow me up a bit.
I really liked the book, though. One reviewer on Amazon recommended the novel for “lazy minds.” I think that’s a bit harsh, but I do understand what they’re saying. You can enjoy the novel topically if you’re looking for a story about a young woman struggling to uncover her past and, in the process, figuring out who she is in the present — but I think there’s far more to the book than the superficial interpretations of Faith “coming of age” and learning “from whence she came.” If I had had more caffeine and, perhaps, a little sharper of an eye, I would probably be able to expound on that.
For now, suffice it to say that I recommend the book for its character, interesting and realistic dialogue and fascinating settings. Since I’m such an Anglophile and in love with the many aspects of British culture, I’ll be checking Andrea Levy out again.
3 out of 5!