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Faith Jackson is the daughter of Jamaican immigrants to Britain; her parents came to live in London in the late 1950s and worked hard to build a business and buy their own home in which to raise Faith and her brother. Whenever Faith asks her mother about Jamaica the older woman changes the subject, which is why the news that her parents are thinking about going back to live in Jamaica now their children are grown up is so surprising. Faith and Carl have done well for themselves; after graduating from fashion college, Faith managed to land a job at the BBC, in spite of people telling her that as a black woman she'd be unlikely to be successful there. She shares a house with white people of her own age and knows nothing about her cultural background. But this is the 1970s and racist sentiment is running high in London and, after witnessing the aftermath of a National Front attack, Faith starts to question whether she really belongs in the circles she moves in. This self-doubt affects her profoundly and, urged by her parents, she decides to visit Jamaica for the first time. At first Faith feels like she doesn't belong in Jamaica either but soon, in the bosom of garrulous Aunt Coral, Faith starts to learn about her family's past.
Andrea Levy writes convincingly about the experiences of immigrants to Britain; her award-winning novel "Small Island" tackled a similar topic to "The Fruit of Lemon" but in this novel she looks at the experience of the second generation of immigrants and what it is to really belong. Faith is British, she was born in Britain and is a product of the British education system; she even works at one of the most British of institutions, the BBC. In a rural pub, Faith meets a man who seems fixed on the idea that Faith can't be British because she is black; it's a minor incident and written in a very understated way yet what it says about the prejudices that many people still hold firm is loud and clear. This isn't a crusading novel; there's no obvious bitterness (the author was born in Britain to Jamaican parents). Instead the message seems to be that people's beliefs often stem from ignorance, not from malice; even Faith learns some surprising things about her own family tree that teach her that the issue isn't as simple as some may think.
Whether describing life in a shared house in London in the 70s or small town life in Jamaica, Levy's writing is thoroughly engaging and evocative. The simple storyline allows her to focus on creating captivating characters and realistic settings. I loved Faith's mum and dad with their commitment to hard work and their strange habit of collecting cardboard boxes. There is a quite moving, but also very funny, scene where Faith asks her father for some boxes when she is moving out and for some inexplicable reason he is reluctant to part with more than a couple. I liked the contrast between Carl and Faith with their differing views on how well they belong in Britain. Carl is a great depiction of a young black man who wants to celebrate his ancestry and is in danger of letting his pride in who he is stop him being truly integrated, while Faith's education and career path have resulted in her being almost entirely cut off from her background other than the contact she has within the nuclear family.
When the story moves to Jamaica the narrative changes from a straightforward and alternates between a conventional narrative as Faith settles in, and tales of family members through the generations. I found some of these stories too long so the point being made became rather laboured and it was made too many times. The stories came across as self-indulgent rather than adding anything substantial to the story. On the other hand, I was interested in Carl and wanted to know more of what happens to him and felt the story should have moved more in that direction.
Nonetheless this is a very readable family history that provides the reader with much to ponder. It's a very balanced novel in that the reader gets to weigh up the positives and negatives of both Jamaica and the UK and I didn't feel that I was being pushed one way or the other. Andrea Levy writes with compassion but there are shades of irony and not inconsiderable wit. In particular she writes dialogue with a degree of authenticity that I think is rare these days.
It's every bit as good as her other novels (if this provides a reference for readers) and would appeal to readers who have enjoyed Monica Ali or Alice Walker. Recommended.