BOOK REVIEW / Not just different

NEVER FAR FROM NOWHERE by Andrea Levy, Headline pounds 12.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ANDREA LEVY'S first novel, Every Light in the House Burnin', was an affectionate, funny and moving account of a family of Jamaican immigrants growing up on a council estate in Highbury. Her second novel is about a Jamaican family living on, you've guessed it, a council estate in Highbury. But now, the gentleness of the first book has given way to something much harsher. The characters are less sympathetic and the narrating voice is angry and raw. In fact, there are two narrators: lazy, sullen, angry Olive, who leaves school at 16 to work in Chelsea Girl, gets pregnant and spends her days propped in front of the telly; and her younger sister Vivien, hard-working, anxious to please and eager to be accepted, first among her skinhead and "crombie" friends and later among the middle-class hippy set.

Olive moans endlessly about her life, the "white bitch" who manages the shop, her mum and, after her shot-gun wedding, her husband. Vivien paints vivid cameos of school life, trips to the youth-club, the disco and the pub. Levy's dialogue craftily conveys the unbreakable rules of each youth subculture. These scenes, full of swearing and adolescent embarrassment, move into sharper focus when a racist incident explodes into violence. Rose Charles, Olive and Vivien's mother, does not believe that she or her family are black. "You're not white and you're not black - you're you," she says to her daughters whenever the issue is raised. Fierce Olive refuses to laugh at racist jokes, while fair-skinned Vivien would do "whatever was required". But in an England full of racial hatred - obscene graffiti on the council estate, fights in the pub and "Neanderthal Man" downstairs selling the National Front newspaper - Vivien learns that she's not just different, but black.

The cultural differences that arise between the sisters are reflected in their wildly differing accounts of the same events, and, as the book progresses, the interweaving narratives begin to throw up unexpected subtleties and nuances. Never Far From Nowhere is as much about the painful, messy reality of family life - too much envy, too little love - as it is about race and identity. In this lively, crisp, raw voice, young black Londoners may have found their Roddy Doyle.