Review no 2: Sam Selvon (1923-1994), The Lonely Londoners (Trinidad and Tobago)

THE AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

“I think I can say without a trace of modesty that I was the first Caribbean writer to explore and employ dialect in a full-length novel where it was used in both narrative and dialogue” – Sam Selvon

The Lonely Londoners, Sam Selvon’s most famous novel, was published in 1956, and was probably the first novel to be inspired by the immigrant experience of the so-called Windrush generation. Given the Windrush scandal of 2018 in the UK, this book seemed a timely and pertinent read.

Selvon was born into a middle-class family in Trinidad and Tobago to an Indian father and an Indian-Scottish mother. He served in the Trinidadian Navy and then worked in publishing, before moving to England in 1950, out of a sense of adventure. He stayed in England until the late 1970s, before moving to Canada, and finally returning to Trinidad, where he died.

On his arrival in England, according to the writer Sukhdev Sandhu, Selvon became more “aware of the richness and diversity of Caribbean speech”. The Lonely Londoners is written in Caribbean dialect, which led contemporaneous critics to dismiss it as “an amusing social documentary of West Indian manners”, according to the writer Susheila Nasta. Now it has safely achieved the status of a classic, and is viewed as a groundbreaking exemplar of Caribbean immigrant writing.

The Lonely Londoners’ distinctive narrative voice is closely entwined with the voices of the Caribbean characters who are making their way in London, which, however familiar it might be (and I have lived in London for nearly 30 years), is made strange to the reader, like “another planet”.

The book’s main characters are overwhelmingly male, and their attitude to women can seem somewhat challenging in the post-#metoo era. However, since the majority of West Indian immigrants in the 1950s were male (husbands might bring their family over later, once they were more settled), it makes sense that the book is written from an overwhelmingly male perspective, and that is reflects the mores of the time.

The varied and diverse characters – from, for example, Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados and Nigeria – are related in a series of vignettes, bound together by their common experiences and their connection to the central figure, Moses. Moses is an established member of the migrant community, and an – albeit rather reluctant – source of support and advice for new arrivals.

Overall, this is a short, lyrical, often moving book about the disillusionment of the 1950s Caribbean migrant experience, encounters with endemic racism, a pervasive sense of displacement, and nostalgia for a lost past, shot through with humour.

“Under the kiff-kiff laughter, behind the ballad and the episode, the what-happening, the summer-is-hearts, he could see a great aimlessness, a great restless, swaying movement that leaving you standing in the same spot. As if a forlorn shadow of doom fall on all the spades in the country.”

Review no 1: Tove Jansson (1914-2001) , The True Deceiver (Finland)

Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal

EUROPE

****

“I loved this book. It’s cool in both senses of the word, understated yet exciting …. The characters still haunt me.” – Ruth Rendell

It wasn’t until I went to an amazing exhibition on the life and work of Tove Jansson at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London at the beginning of 2018 that I fully realised that Tove Jansson wasn’t only well known for her Moomin books.

Jansson was the daughter of Finnish artists from the country’s Swedish-speaking minority, and studied art in the Swedish capital, Stockholm, as well as in Helsinki and Paris. From her 50s she wrote several books for adults. The True Deceiver was published in 1982, but appeared in English translation only in 2009.

I chose it pragmatically, on the basis that my husband (a childhood Moomin fan) owns it, and it was just sitting there on the bookshelf downstairs. He has several of her novels in translation, but this particular one was included by Boyd Tonkin in his pick of The 100 Best Novels in Translation in 2019.

The prose in The True Believer is disarmingly simple, but the book is much more nuanced than it first appears. The descriptions of the landscape and the small hamlet in which the story is set are beautifully evocative. I found this particularly the case as I was reading the book during the summer months, when snow and months-long ice seemed an even more alien experience than usual.

“People woke up late because there was no longer any morning. The village lay soundless under untouched snow until the children were let out and dug tunnels and caves and shrieked and were left to themselves”.

Strange, yellow-eyed Katri Kling lives with her 15-year-old orphaned brother Mats and her nameless, yellow-eyed dog in an attic above a shop, where she lies, unsleeping, worrying about money.

Meanwhile, an old lady, Anna Amelin, illustrates whimsical books featuring flowery rabbits and lives alone in a villa that is dubbed by the locals as the ‘rabbit house’, along with her long-dead parents’ overflowing paperwork and disused furniture.

This novel has a mythological feel, and fairly crackles with ice. It is a beautiful, short book about withholding and trusting, about the difference between the surface and what lies beneath, about alienation and acceptance, and about the casual cruelties and intimacies of small-town life.

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