The winner of the 2004 Whitbread Book of the Year Award and the 2004 Orange Prize—the first writer to win both for the same novel—draws on her Jamaican background in the alluring story of two couples, one Jamaican and one English, whose paths cross in WWII-era England.
The Jamaican Gilbert Joseph volunteers for the Royal Air Force, but life in England isn’t what he expected, with its tasteless boiled food and insidious racism. After the war, he returns to Jamaica but still hopes to study law in England, and when Hortense, a Jamaican teacher, offers him the money to travel to England if he’ll marry her, he agrees—only to discover, back in England, that he cannot study law and the best job he can find is as a postal-truck driver. When Hortense joins him six months later, she is not only shocked by his threadbare fifth-floor room but offended by the prejudice she encounters and discouraged when her Jamaican teacher’s credential is rejected. In the story of the adjustments these bright, well-educated and dignified immigrants must make, Gilbert’s earthiness offers a delicious counterpoint to Hortense’s prideful ambition. Other voices include that of the Josephs’ white landlady, Queenie Bligh, the daughter of a provincial butcher, and of her husband Bernard, an older bank clerk in India with the RAF. Queenie meets Gilbert during the war, when he once brings her wandering father-in-law back to her home. The father-in-law, shell-shocked in WWI, is killed by an MP during a brawl at the movies caused when Gilbert refuses to follow the “rules” that segregate the theater racially. When her husband Bernard doesn’t come home to their big London house after the war, Queenie takes in lodgers, including Gilbert and Hortense. The growing tensions among the three—and the disruption when Bernard returns at last—bring a spellbinding story to a surprising, heart-rending climax.
An enthralling tour de force that animates a chapter in the history of empire. This is Levy’s fourth novel, but first U.S. publication.