Monday, 25 March 2013

"The Lonely Londoners" - Sam Selvon

I read this book on a city break to London last year (before we moved to live here) but it's come to mind again recently and, without claiming any expertise whatsoever, I wanted to celebrate it. 

This is the second novel I've read that has delved into the stories of Caribbean migrants in Britain after the second world war; the first was Small Island by Andrea Levy. Levy's book was every bit as brilliant as the reviews made out, but The Lonely Londoners caught me by surprise and surpassed my expectations. For me, Small Island was an education; The Lonely Londoners was an experience.

That distinction was in part created by the language and form of Sam Selvon's novel: its episodic writing style, the use of non-standard English in the narrative voice. From the outset I found myself involved in a sensory and emotional immersion into alien London, feeling the characters' estrangement from places that are in reality fairly familiar to me. And I loved it.

I loved this book because, in some small but significant way, it gave me a greater love for my maternal Grandad. It allowed me to look with empathy on complex choices that I've previously judged from the comfort of my own perspective. It gave me a framework for actually seeing, not just knowing on an intellectual level, that there is more to our family story than personal egos and agendas. We do have choices. Undeniably. But those choices are made in the very real context of our circumstances. I would be wise to show the sort of grace I might want to receive when my culture and convictions are judged by someone else's standards.

I've said before that fiction is great in my eyes if it makes me reconsider reality. I'll be forever grateful to The Lonely Londoners for making me think twice about a story I thought I understood.

My first reading of this book was all about my emotional response, but I'm learning more about the novel from a literary perspective using a free Open University unit available here.

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