Books: A high mind in Jamaica

Andrea Henry wonders where the second generation feels most at home: Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy Review, pounds 16.99, 340pp

JUST OVER 50 years ago, Britain became home to the first West Indian immigrants to arrive en masse, as part of a government initiative. Five hundred people, mostly men, arrived, not on a banana boat - according to the old racist taunt with which Andrea Levy's third novel opens - but on a former troop ship. More followed, and some did travel on banana boats. The passengers had berths, and the bananas were kept in the hold. With their children and their children's children, they now contribute to the black population of Britain.

Faith Jackson, the narrator of Fruit of the Lemon, is a second-generation Jamaican, as is Andrea Levy. What it means to be Black British is the novel's subject. Faith has grown up unaware of her colour and ignorant of her heritage, courtesy of her parents' struggle. She has thought herself in control of her life. But, having taken a degree, set up home with white friends, and secured a job with the quintessentially English BBC, being black becomes an issue.

It occurs to Faith that life for a black person is not the same as for a white person, however educated or well-spoken, however much a "coconut" (white on the inside) one is. The revelation hits her like a slap in the face. Her parents pack her off on a voyage of self-discovery to Jamaica, "Home".

This is a book of two very distinct halves, of which the first, "England", is a disappointingly flat read. Levy's portrait of a typical Jamaican family is just that: typical. Her scenarios are weary and her characters are stereotypes, although the expose of Faith's working-class "friends", who like to call a spade a spade, is close enough to the bone to be insightful. On the whole, however, Levy slavishly ticks off the cliches, managing to make throbbing issues - such as mixed relationships - feel so tired and lame, it is just possible that the trawl is a deliberate ploy to make the second half seem more vibrant.

If so, it works. By contrast, "Jamaica" is bright and inventive, brought alive by the moving and humorous creation of Faith's colourful extended family, and its extraordinary history. Jamaica warmly embraces its long- lost sister, and Faith gets her life back on track.

To leave behind everything you know, to go in search of a new beginning - with the future of your children, and your children's children in mind - is one of the greatest of Romantic images because it is one of the hardest things to do. Is it harder or easier for the children of immigrants, black and white, to focus on where they are going when more than half an eye must be kept on where they have come from? It is a precarious balancing act, but Levy firmly believes everyone should know where they have come from, for the past deeply affects the choices one makes in life.

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