Andrea Levy, who wrote extensively about the Black British experience in novels like Small Island and The Long Song, has died of cancer at the age of 62.
She started writing in her thirties and created a space for stories of the Windrush generation in a time when they weren’t being heard. Her first books, Every Light in the House Burnin’, Never Far From Nowhere and Fruit of the Lemon were well reviewed but received little commercial success.
It was her next novel, Small Island, that made Levy a household name. After years of grafting with little recognition, the 2004 novel won her the Women’s Prize for Fiction, The Whitbread Book of the Year, the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and the Costa Book of the Year Award. The story of Gilbert and Hortense continues to capture audience’s imaginations, with a BBC adaptation coming out a few years after it was published and a stage adaptation coming to the National Theatre this year.
For those interested in her biography, the BBC ran an Imagine episode about Levy’s life. However, the best way to get to know Levy is through her work. Her writing is compassionate and moving, but stares hard and unflinchingly at injustices.
There has been an outpouring of admiration for Levy online. Sharmaine Lovegrove, head of Dialogue Books wrote on Twitter that Levy “was the centre of my Black British reading experience. My world is richer for her stories and I am stronger in my convictions because her characters nourished me.”
Described by Malorie Blackman as “a warm, funny and generous spirit” and “gracious, kind, pioneering” by poet, Jackie Kay, it is clear that Levy’s influence was wide-reaching and deep-rooted.
Her books remain important anti-racist explorations of post-war Britain. In her last novel, The Long Song, she went even further back in time, writing about the last years of slavery in 19th Century Jamaica. The novel, alongside her other books, is an insightful look at the reverberating effects of Empire.
We have lost a great writer, yes, but we have been left a great many of her books. For readers new to Levy’s work, I’d recommend starting with Small Island.