Title: Fruit of the Lemon
Author: Andrea Levy
Publisher: Headline Book Publishing
Paperback: 340 Pages
Accolade: Winner of the Orange Prize for fiction
From the publisher:
Faith Jackson has set herself up with a great job and a brilliant flat share. But life is not that perfect. Her relations with her overbearing, though always loving, family leave a lot to be desired, especially when her parents announce their intention to retire back home to Jamaica. Perplexed, even furious, Faith makes her own journey there, where she is immediately welcomed by her Aunt Coral, keeper of a rich cargo of family history. Her aunt's compelling storytelling unfurls a wonderful cast of characters from Cuba, Panama, Harlem and Scotland in a story that passes through London and sweeps over continents.
I had totally forgotten about Andrea Levy's books until it recently popped up in some book discussions, especially her much touted literary master-piece 'Small Island' which garnered so much prize and attention all over the world. Before I got around to reading 'Small Island', I picked this book, just because it was a tad smaller than 'Small Island' and I wanted to get a taste of her writing first. She didn't betray my expectations. In fact, she swept me off my feet with her beautifully crafted, richly detailed and vibrant story of 'Fruit of Lemon'. From London to Jamaica, Cuba to Scotland, she conjured up beautiful images of the sceneries, of the people and their lives. She intricately wove a web of stories, each vividly imagined and so wonderfully portrayed.
Lemon tree very pretty
And the lemon flower is sweet
But the fruit of the poor lemon
Is impossible to eat
~ Will Holt, Lemon Tree
Her stories, especially from the Caribbean, were so refreshing. In 'Fruit of the Lemon', she took the protagonist of the novel, Faith Jackson, on an unforgettable journey of 'self-discovery' from London to her homeland Jamaica. What was revealed by her Jamaican Aunt Coral was an extraordinary account of Faith's ancestral past which make up the latter part of the book. With a little over a half dozen short stories that spread over the globe, they were golden nuggets, so impressively detailed, wonderfully described and standalone tales that could easily pass off as independent short stories. The family trees that were interspersed throughout the book, which initially seemed superfluous to me, made sense as the novel progressed. No way, I would have been able to keep track of all her characters without that family tree she put together. Even with that I lost myself in the maze as I dug deeper into the book, leaving me a little confused and frustrated. However, Only when I decided to let it all go and enjoy Coral's stories as independent anecdotes, I really began to enjoy the book. What I like about Andrea's writing was how she set up the premise of each story. Her passion and fervor for writing clearly came through her words, the emotions still clinging to the passages even after I moved on. More than the first half which dealt with racism and black immigrants in London, I was captivated by the second half which focused on the stories set against the Caribbean backdrop. Her vivid imaginations of white sand beaches, the women in floral-print skirts swaying their hips to the rhythms of music, the men in panama hat sipping on pineapple rum tantalized me so much, I almost wanted to book an airplane ticket to the Caribbean Islands.
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.
The first half of the book that began with the story of Faith Jackson, her work as a dresser in a British Television Company and about her parents who came from Jamaica on a 'banana-boat'. Even though Faith's story set a wonderful preface for what was about to come next, the story did drag a bit when compared to the second half where she traveled to Jamaica to trace her ancestral roots. However, Levy tried to balance it out by generously dousing her prose with witticism and humor, barring the sections that dealt with racialism. Although the story was pertained to Faith and her journey of self-discovery, the importance of belonging that Faith longed for was something many immigrants can identify with. People with disconnected pasts, rooted in an alien country, often grapple with a sense of identity, the belonging, loneliness, discrimination and yearn to be with their own kind. Just like Faith's mother says "Everyone needs to know where they came from", this story was one memorable journey in the right step.