The Reading Women Challenge encourages you to explore women’s writing, reading each previous winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Find out more here.
This month I read books gathered by the theme of ‘immigration.’ Each story is about relocating to another country in search of something that is, at its heart, a better life.
It seems a fair component of novels about immigration that they all cling to a continuous past. Each one employs an interesting narrative structure, where every so often it will drop into the past. I found this kept me interested in each book, as it always gave plot events and then delved into the reasoning – how did the characters get here, what formative events occurred in their childhood? I also think this is a clever way to tell stories about immigration. So much of immigration is about beginning again, starting over in a new life, and yet a fundamental reason for that inaugration is in the past.
Another theme present in each book is war. The Lacuna spans quite a timeline, including both world wars, while Small Island is largely focused around WW2 and its aftermath. The Road Home, although it is set in more of a modern day, does not escape this brush with conflict, however, as the Eastern European country that the protagonist comes from has recently broken free of the Soviet Union. Perhaps it seems obvious that global conflict plays a massive part in each story – it is one of the largest motivators for immigration, after all. Alongside that, then, is a stark question – how can you turn away an immigrant? When European countries continue to come under fire for cruelty towards migrants desperate to find a safe shore, I think these are stories that should be read, and read again, because they persist outside of fiction.
The Road Home – Rose Tremain (2008 winner)
Synopsis: Lev is on his way from Eastern Europe to Britain, seeking work. Behind him loom the figures of his dead wife, his beloved young daughter and his outrageous friend Rudi. Ahead of Lev lies the deep strangeness of the British. London holds out the alluring possibility of friendship, sex, money and a new career and, if Lev is lucky, a new sense of belonging…
The main character of this book is Lev. We first meet him on a very long bus journey from an unnamed country in Eastern Europe, to London. He is seeking work and money, which cannot be found back home. It is a direct arrow to the title of this book – Lev does not begin on the road home, but perhaps this road will lead him there eventually.
The book charts Lev’s journey as he attempts to make money that will help him live, that will help his family back home live better. “I’m going to their country now and I’m going to make them share it with me: their infernal luck,” Lev thinks on his endless journey there in the beginning. It is a very complete portrayal of immigration to England, both the disasters and opportunities that could greet you, the racism immigrants face, the overwhelming culture of London, part of which is about food. Lev’s jobs always seem to involve food. London, so much of it built by immigrants, is bound up with food indelibly. When food is national as well as personal identity, what does it mean for a place that has based its identity on others’? “Herbs? Oh, yes. Fine. But they like things plain. Don’t forget this is England, Lev.”
Another thing I want to comment on is the background story arc that runs throughout this book – the redemptive nature of women. Lev is haunted by women. His dead wife, Marina. The mother and daughter he leaves behind in Auror. The women he meets in London or Lydia, who he meets on the journey there from their country. She is one of the most interesting characters in the book, present for each step of Lev’s journey, living on another page. Lev frequently turns to Lydia for help when he is down on his luck or just out of sorts, and I think this story quietly captures the particular burden of women’s immigration. There is always an expectation, even in the narrative, that Lydia will help. That she will continue to help Lev, maybe because it’s the right thing to do, but also because she is a woman and it is in her nature. It is a clever way to give you more than one story of immigration. The fact that Lydia’s story occurs in the background is also, I think, not coincidence.
Small Island – Andrea Levy (2004 winner)
Synopsis: It is 1948, and England is recovering from a war. Queenie Bligh’s neighbours do not approve when she agrees to take in Jamaican lodgers, but Queenie doesn’t know when her husband will return, or if he will come back at all. What else can she do? Gilbert Joseph was one of the several thousand Jamaican men who joined the RAF to fight against Hitler. Returning to England as a civilian he finds himself treated very differently. Gilbert’s wife Hortense, too, had longed to leave Jamaica and start a better life in England. But when she joins him she is shocked to find London far from the golden city of her dreams.
Small Island dips in and out of the past and present, and concerns the fate of three different characters: Hortense, who has somehow ended up living in England; Gilbert, her husband, who decided to travel to England to find a new future after the end of WW2 and Queenie, the Englishwoman who hosts these two Jamaican immigrants as lodgers in her house. The way the narration moves around keeps you captivated, especially because it allows for plot twists that are, sometimes, very unexpected, to the point you have to sit and contemplate them for a while. Actually, the rumination this book forces on you is part of why it’s so good. Naturally, concerning immigration to Britain in the 1950s, this book talks about and around racism, and also manages to remark on the different racisms that exist: to African Americans, to British Jamaicans, to any woman who is black. It also makes you think about colonialism, about the double colonisation of women and also about the way that anti-immigrant sentiment in Britain sometimes doesn’t seem to have changed at all.
Gilbert, when he travels to England after the war for the first time, arrives on the Empire Windrush, a ship that came to name everyone of that generation who travelled from the Caribbean to Britain at that time. The Windrush generation have been in the news frequently lately, mostly because it was revealed the British government were detaining these immigrants, and their families who had lived in Britain all their lives, and sending them back to homes they’d never known. I urge you to read up on it.
National identity, personal struggles, the collective struggle towards the war effort and the sudden change in attitudes once the war is over. All of these are themes of the book, but this book is also intimately concerned with the personal. It is not a vast, sweeping generalisation of this particular story of immigration: it is about specific people. For example, Gilbert can afford to go to England because Hortense proposes they marry, and his reaction to this is to sit on the ground and weep: “I was beaten. There was no choice before me except one.” Or it is about the people in London during wartime, losing their homes and having nowhere to go: “Population, we called them at the rest centre. The bombed-out who;d had the cheek to live through the calamity of a world broken to bits.” The way the story dips into these extremely profound moments of the character’s lives, regardless of which small island they come from or are going to, is a large part of what makes this story feel so personal.
The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver (2010 winner)
Synopsis: Born in the U.S. and reared in Mexico, Harrison Shepherd is a liability to his social-climbing flapper mother, Salome. Making himself useful in the household of the famed Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and exiled Bolshevik leader Lev Trotsky, young Shepherd inadvertently casts his lot with art and revolution. A violent upheaval sends him north to a nation newly caught up in World War II, where he remakes himself in America’s hopeful image. But political winds continue to throw him between north and south…
Publisher: Faber & Faber
The protagonist of this book is Harrison Shepherd, who moves to Mexico as a young boy because his mother wants to move in with a new partner, and is subsequently shuffled between Mexico and the US for the rest of his life. The interesting thing, however, is that our protagonist does not feel like the centre of the story for a large part of it. The book begins from his perspective and is certainly about his life, but it takes a while for the reader to even find out what his name is. What he looks like, what others think of him, who his father is – all of this is secondary, because he considers it secondary. Told in the form of diary entries, this book is more like a story about others than the boy. It is not a retrospective look either, but daily writing. That’s not to say anything in the book is rote, or report-like. There is astonishing lyricism in each of the pages, which is how the protagonist comes through. His loss and love, tragedy and successes – you have to read between the lines to understand them, but they are all definitely there.
One of the things I enjoyed most about this book is the way it gives Mexico a place in events that had global impact in the middle of the 20th century. I often find fiction about history humanises those events in a very unique way, and that is certainly true here, too. Mexico played a central role in Communism, in the Cold War, in WW2, yet I often find this involvement is sidelined. That’s not the case with this book. Mexican culture is alive and flourishing, shown here through language – Spanish sayings and asides, not always translated – and, of course, the presence of Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera, who feel very alive on the page.
As the synopsis suggests, this book is absolutely concerned with the bridge that exists between private and public. The latter half of the book is set in the time of McCarthyism, and the looming tragedy of ruined lives because of political conquest and public fervour hangs like a thundercloud over it, ever since Kingsolver first makes you aware of ‘the Dies Committee.’ Inescapable politics hangs over the protagonist throughout this book, from the Mexican Revolution to Trotsky vs Stalin to the US in the 1950s. However, this does not feel like a political book. It’s structured like a biography, with diary excerpts that feel like the whole story until the interruption of the supposed biographer. It is startling way to make the reader intimately feel that private vs public debate that rages throughout the book. Are we, as readers, involved in this destruction of private lives, that the protagonist is so vehemently against? As Kingsolver reminds us, in politics, we are all complicit.
I enjoyed this book a lot. It felt like I was reading a kind of book I had never read before, both in the way it switched the style of narrative now and again and its content. I wouldn’t say the story is wholly tragic, but it is concerned with a boy, or a man, trying to place roots somewhere and never quite managing to, and yeah, there is something very melancholic about that.
I got through a lot of pages this month. Each book was pretty hefty! But they all felt so easy to read, and I really was in awe at all of the talented storytelling present here..
Next month, I’ll be taking a break from reading past winners of the Women’s Prize for Fiction and reading some books on the 2020 shortlist. Follow my blog to catch those reviews, and in the meanwhile, you can check out my Reading Women reviews from August.
Have you read any of these books? What do you think of books that tackle immigration?