Andrea Levy, author of Small Island, dies from cancer aged 62

Novelist wrote series of books about the experience of Jamaican British people

Andrea Levy: the writer’s father arrived in the UK on the Empire Windrush. Photograph: Rune Hellestad/Corbis via Getty

Andrea Levy: the writer’s father arrived in the UK on the Empire Windrush. Photograph: Rune Hellestad/Corbis via Getty

 

Andrea Levy, author of Small Island and a string of other books about the experience of Jamaican British people, has died, aged 62, from cancer.

Small Island, which was published in 2004, was her fourth novel, and it sent her into the literary big league, winning the Orange prize, the Whitbread book of the year and the Commonwealth Writers’ award, selling more than a million copies around the world and inspiring a BBC adaptation.

Levy was born in London in 1956. Her parents were part of the immigration boom that shaped Britain after the second World War. Her father arrived on the Empire Windrush in 1948; her mother followed shortly afterwards. Levy grew up on a council estate in north London.

I hated myself. I was ashamed of my family, and embarrassed that they came from the Caribbean. In my effort to be as British as I could I was completely indifferent to Jamaica

The racism she encountered as a child was “rarely violent, or extreme,” she said, but it had a marked effect. “I hated myself,” she said. “I was ashamed of my family, and embarrassed that they came from the Caribbean. In my effort to be as British as I could I was completely indifferent to Jamaica.”

Levy worked for a time as a designer, dresser and receptionist. Then, at the age of 26, on a racial-awareness session with colleagues at a sex-education project, she had a “rude awakening”.

“We were asked to split into two groups, black and white,” Levy wrote. “I walked over to the white side of the room. It was, ironically, where I felt most at home – all my friends, my boyfriend, my flatmates, were white. But my fellow workers had other ideas and I found myself being beckoned over by people on the black side. With some hesitation I crossed the floor.”

As a woman “scared” to call herself black, the experience shocked her enough to send her to bed for a week. But a writing course she had begun part time rescued her, sending her back to explore the shame and denial of her childhood and rediscover her Caribbean roots.

It took her 12 years to turn this change in perspective into fiction, with the publication in 1994 of her first novel, Every Light in the House Burnin’. In it, a young black woman returns to help with her father’s cancer, and looks back on her childhood on a council estate and her parents’ journey from Jamaica to London.

Levy began to reach ever further beyond her experience. Judging the Orange prize in 1997 helped her see “what fiction was for”. “I had to read books that I wouldn’t have necessarily read,” she said. “I had to read them well and I had to read them in a short space of time. Back to back. Annie Proulx and Margaret Atwood and Beryl Bainbridge and Anne Michaels – boom, boom, boom. And I started to realise what fiction could be. And I thought, wow! You can be ambitious, you can take on the world – you really can.”

My ancestors, through their forced labour and their enterprise, contributed greatly to the development of Britain

Her next novel was drawn on her largest canvas yet. Small Island follows four narrators, in England and Jamaica, before and after the second World War, contrasting the experiences of Gilbert, a Jamaican RAF pilot, and his wife, Hortense, with those of their English landlady, Queenie, and her husband, Bernard.

Levy wrote about early-19th-century Jamaica for her final novel, The Long Song, about the everyday realities of life on a slave plantation. When she began writing she had planned to cover a much broader sweep of history, but “you can’t avoid slavery”, she said. “You have to go to that place. You keep banging into it.”

In 2014 Levy explained her fascination with the “forgotten history” of the British Caribbean. “Britain made the Caribbean that my parents came from,” she said. “It provided the people – black and white – who make up my ancestry. In return my ancestors, through their forced labour and their enterprise, contributed greatly to the development of this country. My heritage is Britain’s story too.” – Guardian, agencies