Thursday 4 July 2013

Swaddled in Stories

"As my aunt twisted in her seat in the shade searching for the right word, as Vincent licked his fingers and filled his mouth with jerk pork, and as Violet scowled and chided me to listen, they laid a past out in front of me. They wrapped me in a family history and swaddled me tight in its stories. And I was taking back that family to England. But it would not fit in a suitcase - I was smuggling it home." (p.325-6)

This little quote pretty much sums up 'Fruit of the Lemon' by Andrea Levy, which I have been reading for the TBR Pile Challenge 2013 (but also because of how much I loved Small Island). This book is similarly about a family who's roots are in Jamaica, but it focusses on Faith, the daughter of the family and her experience of growing up black in Britain. She is vaguely embarrassed by the notion that her parents 'came over on a banana boat' and seems more concerned with fitting in than understanding her family history. She gets her degree, starts work in a lowly job at the BBC and moves into a shared house with some friends, including, to the horror of her parents, two boys. They in turn try to pair her up with a nice young man who works with her dad, and her brother Carl's new girlfriend is aghast that she seems to have no sense of her true identity. Her parents are also making plans to return to Jamaica. She cannot understand their link to the island and is determined to separate herself from them and forge her own sense of belonging. Then she witnesses a violent incident and it brings home for her the realities of racial politics. 

The second half of the book takes Faith to visit her extended family in Jamaica and here she learns her family history and develops a real sense of connection to who they were and what they experienced. Various members of the family each in turn tell the the story of various other members and gradually the whole story is built up. 

What I loved about this part of the book was the family tree that appears at the beginning of each chapter, and that is gradually added to as we are introduced to new people and go further back in time. It was very helpful too as it allowed me to visualise the links between each generation and remember who was married to who, or grandmother to who, or sister to who; it did all get quite complicated. It was all so beautifully written, the whole atmosphere of the place and particularly the culture shock that Faith experiences when she arrives that is transformed over her visit into a genuine sense of belonging.

Here she is arriving:
"My aunt took both my hands in hers then moved my arms open and looked me up and down. 'You skinny,' she concluded with a laugh. I laughed too then leant forwards to hug her. She was angular and brittle like a bag of crisps and I didn't use my full force in the hug for fear of crushing her.
'I was scared you wouldn't be here,' I said with a smile. One of my aunt's eyebrows rose alarmingly on her forehead and her lips tightened into a thin line as she pierced Vincent with a stare. Vincent looked at his mother and then at me and laughed, 'Of course we here.' " (p.176)

Grace's story (Faith's grandmother) as told by Aunt Coral:
"Nathaniel and Grace had known each other since they were little children. They used to play together by the river when she met him on her way from school. It was Nathaniel who taught her to climb trees and it was Nathaniel's fault Grace got beaten for ripping the sleeve of her dress. 'I don't think your mummy knows this so don't go tellin' her...' Nathaniel asked grace to marry him and she said she would. But Grace's mother did not approve of the match. She said that Nathaniel's family were only cane cutters. That he was too rough, too poor, too dark, too ignorant, for her daughter. Her mother told Grace she must never see Nathaniel again. But they met in secret and nathaniel gave Grave a ring that he made form an old coin. It didn't fit her finger so she kept it in her pocket. 'I saw it once - big ugly thing.' " (p.229-30)

Cecelia story (Faith's great grandmother) told by cousin Vincent:
"Then one day Cecelia was standing on a chair and stretching up to pick tamarinds from a tree with her baby strapped to her back in an old curtain, she slipped and was caught by a man. The man was Benjamin Nelson Hilton. 'Your great-grandfather. But when my mummy tells that story there is no baby, no curtain - nothing is strapped to her back.' " (p.260)

Obadiah and Margaret (Wade's parents, Faith's paternal grandparents) told by Violet:
"Obadiah began to import ribbons. He bought then from an American man who sent Obadiah the finest-quality ribbons in Kingston. Silk ribbon - grosgrain and watered. Satin ribbon - plain, brocaded and striped. Obadiah then sold them to shops. After a while he added lace - torch on, Chantilly and fine silk chiffon - gentlemen's collars and cuffs, embroidery silks, sewing silks, cotton thread on spools and the occasional bolt of novelty gingham cloth.
He met Margaret Little, my grandmother, in one of the shops he supplied. She worked at the back of the shop as a seamstress. 'Although she say she was dressmaker. No one knew the difference but her. But she stick up her nose and say dressmaker not seamstress, if you please. All show.' " (p.281-2)

The whole book has a real sense of history, both as a big thing that encompasses everyone and as a personal tale of the events of individual lives. And Faith is drawn in to the story of her family, and sees and experiences the island that forms the backdrop to the stories. It is a complex interweaving of events that brings her to understand where she comes from and where she belongs. All the story tellers are open and honest, seeing the flaws of their family characters but loving them anyway, not judging, just telling it like it was. Very engaging and real characters, the book takes you into a family and almost makes you feel like you belong too.

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