THE HOUSING LARK by Sam Selvon

THE HOUSING LARK

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A reissue of Selvon’s 1965 novel about a group of Caribbean immigrants pooling their resources to buy a home in England.

Novels like Zadie Smith’s NW and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane are descendants of the work of Selvon (1923-1994), a Trinidadian novelist who moved to London in 1950 and soon began chronicling the lives of Caribbean immigrants there. Those immigrants arrived to address England’s labor shortage, but as Battersby, the lead character here, soon learns, being welcomed as workers still leaves them ostracized from mainstream British society. His apartment is shabby and overpriced, but bigoted authorities won’t hear one man’s complaints about living conditions. So with a few fellow West Indian immigrants, he proposes strength in numbers: The group will collectively buy a piece of property. For Selvon’s purposes, the scheme is largely an opportunity to explore the diversity of the Caribbean immigrant community. (“To Englishers...if a man say he come from Tobago or St. Lucia or Grenada, you none the wiser.”) To that end, the novel is constructed around seriocomic “ballads” about each of the individual participants. One man pretended to arrive from India to score better housing; one man was a hardcore carouser only to fall for the woman who chastised him the most about it; one man’s musical ambitions are waylaid by a drug bust. Serving as a counterpoint to the men’s nonserious approach to getting ahead is a group of women who try to keep them on task, though they're disregarded out of sheer misogyny. Plotwise the novel is a bit shabby, its resolution pat (Selvon's 1956 novel, The Lonely Londoners, covers similar turf and received more acclaim), but the lyricism of Selvon’s narration, evoking Bat’s voice, and his keen eye for the ironies that infuse the immigrant experience and the racism it contends with make it a sharp and surprisingly funny short novel.

A modest but valuable addition to the canon of migrant fiction.

Pub Date: Jan. 14th, 2020
ISBN: 978-0-14-313396-4
Page count: 160pp
Publisher: Penguin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2019