by Andrea Levy
Queenie Bligh's husband Bernard did not return from the war. Left on her own with a large house in London she decides to let rooms in order to support herself. Enter Gilbert Joseph, an old friend of Queenie's who she met while he was serving in the RAF. Gilbert is Jamaican and his arrival at the house does not meet with the approval of Queenie's neighbours. Gilbert is waiting for the arrival of his wife Hortense Roberts, a young idealistic teacher who travels from Jamaica to be with her husband in England.
Gilbert has been scratching an existence since the war. The Jamaican volunteers who helped defend the British Isles are now surplus to requirements and are made to feel extremely unwanted. When Hortense arrives she is appalled. She is a proud, elegant (and naïve) young woman who, on seeing the tiny room with its single bed and one ring cooker, asks Gilbert, "Is this how these people live?" (Especially moving is the scene when Hortense goes to the local education office to offer her services as a teacher and is ridiculed out onto the street - her bafflement is heartbreaking). And, Hortense suspects that Queenie has been more than just a landlady to Gilbert.
When Bernard returns all hell breaks loose!
Levy writes beautifully about the gap between the expectations and the experience of Jamaican immigrants. Before she leaves for Britain, Hortense imagines the 'mother-country':
'In the breath it took to exhale that one little word, England became my destiny. A dining-table in a dining room set with four chairs. A starched tablecloth embroidered with bows. Armchairs in the sitting room placed around a small wood fire. The house is modest - nothing fancy, no show - the kitchen small but with everything I need to prepare meals. We eat rice and peas on Sunday with chicken and corn, but in my English kitchen roast meat with two vegetables and even fish and chips bubble on the stove. My husband fixes the window that sticks and the creaky board on the veranda. I sip hot tea by an open window and look on my neighbours in the adjacent and opposite dwelling. I walk to the shop where I am greeted with manners, 'Good day', politeness, 'A fine day today', and refinement, 'I trust you are well?' A red bus, a cold morning and daffodils blooming with all the colours of the rainbow.'
Sadly, the post-war England that she finds is very different to her dream. Although it deals with the ugly subject of racism, the book is laced with a gentle humour that counter-balances the negativity.
A well deserved winner of the Orange Prize.