“I became nervous waiting for the poet to start. I was thinking, ‘Please be good, please.’ The poet became my dad, my brother, he was the unknown black faces in our photo album, he was the old man on the bus who called me sister, the man in the bank with the strong Trinidadian accent who could not make himself understood. He was every black man – ever.”
Faith Jackson has always been, for the most part, a good girl. She’s a dutiful, well-attired twenty-two year old university graduate, raised by black expatriate Jamaican parents who, according to the common account, came over to England on a banana boat. White boys heckled Faith about this during her childhood, but to her parents, nothing about that journey even remotely elicits shame. Here, early-established, resides Faith’s quandary: her existence straddles bi-polar states of embarrassment and defiance, of red-faced chagrin at her skin, and awful anger at the reactions it provokes in London, where her ‘kind’ are called ‘wogs, ‘nig-nigs’ and ‘coons’ by the various Caucasian whites with whom she interacts. After witnessing a brutal act of vandalism perpetrated by white thugs against the black proprietress of an independent bookstore, something in Faith gives in to despair.
Alarmed by their daughter’s detachment from her (ostensibly glamorous but unfulfilling) job, even by her withdrawal from the raucous bonhomie of her flatmates’ ambience, Faith’s parents devise a plan. They pay her airfare for a fortnight’s getaway in Jamaica, the home to which they’ve been contemplating returning. As Faith’s mother gently reminds her, “Child, everyone should know where they come from.”
While reading Fruit of the Lemon, it became quickly apparent to me that I was in the hands of a startlingly evocative writer. Levy rarely ‘lays it on thick’: there is none of that overindulgence, poorly executed, in exposition, description or plot progression. The ingrained racism Faith endures uneasily in England, her incremental malaise and mistrust of her own complexion, are subtly enforced at every turn, ‘til we feel like buckling beneath the pressure, ourselves.
Caribbean readers will not, I think, be disappointed by Levy’s depiction of Jamaica. Not being of Jamaican ancestry personally, I cannot claim a countrywoman’s expertise, but the testament of the life and people of the island never, not once, caused me to furrow my brow and say, ‘Eh?’ Odds are, whether you are from Jamrock, or Trinidad, or Barbados, or anywhere beneath our persistent and particular sun, you will recognize trademarks of your own growing-up stories. You will steups (loud and irritated sucking of one’s own teeth, referenced several times by Levy) at the description of a relative just like the one who drives you mad. You will sigh when Faith learns the saddest stories of her origins from her Jamaican family, because that sadness, that mad, mad history lies dormant in your family too, just waiting to be prodded uneasily to life again.
Fruit of the Lemon made me laugh uproariously, no small feat, considering that it takes comedic heft on the page to really send me reeling with mirth. Levy excels at marrying elements of the absurd with the lamentable. This is particularly well-transmitted in the presentation of Faith’s ridiculous yet endearing elder brother Carl, who proclaims his superiority over his sister, treating her with a mixture of gruff disdain and barely-veiled irritation, but sheepishly hides the face that he is only just doing his first A-level exam. Most, if not all, of Levy’s characters are drawn in this enviably well-rounded way, so that they things they do and say elicit both hilarity and mortification.
Perhaps most striking of the praises offered to Fruit of the Lemon is the Sunday Telegraph’s assessment that “…[readers] will recognize the truthfulness of the world which Andrea Levy describes”—and these truths, to my mind, have less to do with being Caribbean, and more to do with being an observant person, regardless of skin hue or geographical marker.
With a narrative that spans the reach of the Atlantic, Levy writes convincingly of home and abroad, of isolation amidst throngs and of togetherness where only a few are gathered. Fruit of the Lemon begins with a humbly tiny family tree of Faith and her nuclear family. It ends with the deeply-rooted history of multiple branches, each tier a story and a legacy all its own.
This review was initially featured on Baffled Books.
This book, and 11 more, are part of my official reading list (which can be found in my sign-up post here) for the 2011 Caribbean Writers Challenge.