Every Light in the House Burnin'
About the book
'Better opportunity' - that's why Angela's dad sailed to England from Jamaica in 1948 on the Empire Windrush. Six months later her mum joined him in his one room in Earl's Court.
Twenty years and four children later, Mr Jacob has become seriously ill and starts to move unsteadily through the care of the National Health Service. As Angela, his youngest, tries to help her mother through this ordeal, she finds herself reliving her childhood years, spent on a council estate in Highbury, north London.
My dad was a man - most dads are. But my dad had been taught or was shown or picked up that a man was certain things and a woman was others. I don't know whether he ever questioned the assumptions but I can identify him now as a man thought up in the 1930s and 40s.
He was head of a family - a breadwinner. He should go out to work in the morning and come home at night. He had to discipline children and occasionally do things around the home that required some degree of physical strength. A man did not have to be loving and affectionate. A man had to know everything and never be seen not to understand the world. A man would help around the house only when asked but a man always emptied the bins.
My dad was a man and he did what he thought was expected of him. But he couldn't understand when more was demanded.
'What!' he'd say if he had to take any of us to the dentist. 'What!' if expected to attend a school function. 'Cha,' if expected to wash up. And 'Oh my God!' if mum ever announced that she would not be in so he'd have to look after us.
My dad was from Jamaica - born and bred. He came to this country in 1948 on the Empire Windrush ship. My mum joined him six months later in his one room in Earl's Court. He never talked about his family or his life in Jamaica. He seemed only to exist in one plane of time - the present. There is an old photo of him - grainy black and white that shows him dressed in an immaculate tailored suit with wide baggy trousers, wearing a shirt with a collar held by a pin, and a proper tie. His hair is short and well groomed. He is standing by a chair in the grounds of what looks to be a beautiful house. The photo looks like my dad as a 'Great Gatsby'- type millionaire. When I asked my dad about the photo that fascinated me, he would grudgingly admit that it was where he lived. But when I pressed him to tell me more he would shrug and tell me not to bother him. Or he'd suck his teeth and ask me why I was interested. He would ask this in the manner of somebody who does not want an answer - of somebody who would like you to leave them alone.
My dad had a job with the Post Office. He'd been in the same job for as long as I knew him. But I couldn't tell you what he did or who he did it with. I'm afraid I can't tell you if he enjoyed his work - if he longed to go every day because it brought him fulfilment and happiness - or whether he dreaded every morning and watched the clock until he could leave. I can't tell you because I don't know. My dad was a man and men didn't talk about their work. It was a secret between him and his wage packet. If you asked him what he did at work, he'd shrug and say that he worked for the Post Office.
My dad called my mum 'Mum' and my mum called my dad 'Dad'. I was about ten years old before I know their actual names - Winston and Beryl. My dad didn't like anyone to know his name. It was another secret. If we said it in public he would look embarrassed and tell us not to say it again. And if we said it too loudly at home he would tell us to be quiet. As for my dad's age - well that was shrug-shoulders age, that was absolutely-none-of-my-business age, that was don't-bother-me age.
I should describe my dad - tell you what he looked like. But who would I describe? Should I describe the young man I knew with the neatly greased-back wavy hair who would throw me up in the air or ask to hold my hand when we crossed the road.
Or should I tell you about the pot-bellied middle-aged man who spent hours in front of the mirror trying to conceal his grey hair. Or perhaps I should describe the old, wild-haired man - fat and bloated by steroids aimed at keeping his dying body alive a little longer. My dad was all these men and many more. Some said he showed a resemblance to the late President Sadat of Egypt in his younger days. And he did sometimes - around the nose.
Stands comparison with some of the best stories about growing up poor - humorous and moving, unflinching and without sentiment.
A rich and colourful portrait of two very endearing individuals. The only disappointment is that after two hundred and fifty pages, it ends.
A powerful novel, a striking and promising debut
You won't want to put this book down.
An interesting and touching book.
Every light in the house burnin' is a very fine debut indeed - funny, lucid, quirky and touching, it held me to the last page. Andrea Levy is a fresh and invigorating new voice.
It is clear that Levy has plenty more to say about being British or just about life. I look forward to reading it.
Andrea Levy is the long awaited birdsong of one born Black and Gifted in Britain. Let her sing and sing and sing.