Tag Archives: Andrea Levy

Post-War Novels

Change is implicated in all novels’ plots. No change is greater than that brought by war: physical change to bodies, buildings and landscapes; social and economic change to families and other communities large and small.

In the exploration of human relations, emotions, loss, change and survival after an armed conflict fiction has an important role to play. There may be no peace as delayed, new or latent issues emerge. Characters shift from a communal effort towards one objective – winning the war – to a focus on their own personal lives and difficulties.

Such change and conflict is fertile ground for novelists as these recommended post-war novels demonstrate, all set in the years following the Second World War.

  • Shirley Hazzard The Great Fire
  • Marghanita Laski The Village
  • Marie Sizun Her Father’s Daughter

Survival and guilt

The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard (2004) published by Virago. pp314

296-gr-fire-cover

The title of this novel put me off but a writer friend recommended it and now I believe it is one of the best novels I have read. The fire refers to the engulfing flames of the Second World War, the involvement of so many countries, the explosion of the first A Bomb in Hiroshima and the scorched emotions of characters in the novel including a consuming love. And this novel considers the damage brought by survivor guilt.

Aldred Leith is an Englishman in Japan in 1947, physically and emotionally scarred. He meets a much younger Australian woman, Helen, and falls for her. The narrative follows Leith’s love for Helen, so strong, so necessary for his survival that it affirms the importance of love for humans, for a decent life, in war or peace. But it is much more than a love story, being peopled by the wounded victorious, the accidental survivors, the chance encounters, the generosity of strangers, the bitterness of war.

Here’s Adam Mars-Jones’s review from the Observer in Dec 2003: ‘surely an outright masterpiece’.

Social Change

The Village by Marghanita Laski, first published in 1952, reissued by Persephone Books in 2007. 302pp

This novel looks at post-war village life in England, the changes and frictions left after conflict. These are explored through the relationship of Margaret Trevor and Roy Wilson, one from the declining and impoverished middle class and the other from a respectable working class family. Roy is a compositor, a man of the future. Margaret’s family disapprove of their relationship, but they have hardy a penny to their name. Their reference points are pre-war.

For Wendy Trevor it is the worst social embarrassment to have her daughter engaged to a working class man. Mrs Trevor is prepared to do stupid and destructive things to ensure her daughter doesn’t marry Roy. But the reactions of the other villagers shows us how things have been changed by the war and also about values that were maintained despite so much destruction.

The value of property, the inability to maintain large houses, the changing relationship between workers and ‘masters’, even the contrast between Negroes in the North of the US and the working class are revealed.

A reunited or divided families

Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun, first published in French in 2005 and published in English in 2016 by Peirene Press. Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter. 150pp

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It’s Paris in the dying embers of war. A little girl lives with her mother in a close and rather spoiled relationship in a flat; her father is absent – a prisoner of war. Only her grandmother makes any impression on the child, with a memory of a holiday in Normandy and the birth of a baby sister. Back in Paris, without the baby, the child is told that the episode was a dream. The father returns, damaged, but happy to be back. The child reveals her mother’s lie and the father leaves and later marries someone else.

Told from the child’s point of view, her relationships within the family are charted through devotion to the mother, hostility to the father, changing into reluctant pleasure at her father’s presence, then devotion to him. When he leaves the little girl is forlorn, but then reinstates her relationship with her mother. Later in life she reflects on what her father has given her.

Rather a sad tale of change brought by war.

Some Other Post-War novels

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey is set partly in the present and partly in the austerity years immediately after the Second World War. This novel deals with memory, dementia and loss. You can find my review here.

296-sm-island-cover

Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004) is partly set in the post WW2 era, and explores how people reacted to West Indian immigrants, among other things. It celebrates the West Indian contribution to the war effort and the attraction of the Mother Country.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (2009) is a ghost story – or is it? – set around a dilapidated and declining country house in Warwickshire in the late 1940s, at the start of the National Health Service. The characters emerge from the trauma of the war to experience yet more difficulties in peacetime.

Over to you

Can you recommend any more post-war novels? What makes it such a good time setting for a novel?

 

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Six Stories & an Essay by Andrea Levy

Andrea Levy is best known for a novel that everyone should read: Small Island. Published in 2004, it won the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Whitbread Book of the Year, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Orange ‘Best of the Best’. It was also made into a tv series. More recently, 2010, The Long Song won the Walter Scott Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.132 6 Stories cover

Six Stories & an Essay is her newly published book, October 2014. It is intimate, and lets us into her motivation and her development as a writer. She enrolled on a City Lit writing class. At the time she was starting out on a painful transition from being scared to call herself a black person to welcoming being called a black British writer. It was a difficult time.

Writing came to my rescue. The course had an emphasis on writing about what you know. So, nervously I began to explore what I knew – my family upbringing and background, my complicated relationship with colour. Thinking about what I knew, and exploring my background with words, began to open it up to me as never before. I soon came to realise that growing up in this country was part of what it meant to be black. All those agonies over skin shade. Those silences about where we had come from. The shame. The denial. In fact I came to see that every black person’s life, no matter what it is, is part of the black experience. Because being black in a majority white country comes with a myriad of complications and contradictions. It was writing that helped me to understand that. (11)

And she goes on to suggest that the black experience is part of a largely unknown, or forgotten or denied aspect of Britain’s life. She concludes the essay with these words

My heritage is Britain’s story too. It is time to put the Caribbean back where it belongs – in the main narrative of British history. (19)

She has already got this project underway. Small Island is about the period when the peoples of Britain and the Caribbean began to develop shared history here in Britain, the period from the Second World War on. The Long Song is set in the time of slavery in the Caribbean. They offer hard lessons about the intersection of British and Caribbean histories at the same time as reminding us of heartening human qualities.132 SM Island

This collection also explores the histories of peoples in the Caribbean and in Britain in the last 100 years. Uriah’s War was the First World War. It follows two friends from Jamaica who joined British West Indian Regiment and fought in Palestine and Egypt. The dominant version of this war is of the British Tommy fighting in the trenches, a version that ignores the considerable sacrifice of people from all over the Empire, and of women in the war. (I wrote about remembering women poets in a post called Women’s Poetry in the First World War. Lest we forget!)

Other stories refer to other people who are less powerful in our society and we would like to ignore, forget or deny, especially children in poverty (Deborah), newly arrived immigrants (The Empty Pram and That Polite Way That English People Have) and refugees (Loose Change). As a first step communication or a shared language is important, a theme of The Empty Pram and February.

I welcomed the insight into Andrea Levy’s development as a writer. She read the short story called The Diary aloud to the City Lit writing class.

At last I could get my own back, I thought. But what I really enjoyed as I read it out was that people laughed. It was much more satisfying than the revenge. And once I’d made them laugh they seemed more open to what I had to say. I have never forgotten that. (23-5)

132 A Levy2So if what I have said about the stories suggests that they are rather earnest and political, I should point out that Levy has a delightful lightness of touch, a humour that readers of Small Island will recognise. Here is the ending of the story in which the narrator, newly arrived in Britain, has tried to explain that she was bringing the baby back to his mother and is finally understood to be a rescuer not a kidnapper.

My wrist was released and the mother of the baby, who was smiling now, said, ‘Thank you for bringing her back. But you should have told us what happened.’ Then all three women began patting me like a dog – on the shoulder, on the head – as they discussed together whether I would like a nice cup of tea.’ (102)

132 Tinder LogoOne final point about this book. It is published by the independent publisher, Tinder Press (a new imprint), who have produced a lovely hardback book, with beautifully tactile paper, and included photographs to match the stories – it’s an object of pleasure.

 

Six Stories & an Essay by Andrea Levy is published by Tinder Press at £12.99 in October 2014. Thanks to Tinder Press for the review copy.

 

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