30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #15 Andrea Levy

Now that my novel Her Own Vietnam is out in the world, I’m going back to writing about 30 Women Novelists You Should Know. We’ve reached the halfway mark with Britain’s Andrea Levy.

How many ways can you say “wow!”?

Andrea Levy has won so many literary prizes in England, it’s as if they ran out of superlatives to use when describing her work. Her 2004 book Small Island won not only the Whitbread Novel award, but the Whitbread Book of the Year award. Not only did it receive the Orange Prize for Fiction, it also won the Orange Prize ‘Best of the Best’ award.

Four voices, four futures

As far as I’m concerned, the novel deserves all of these accolades and more. It’s a beautiful and powerful story of two couples in England in the years after World War II.

Hortense and Gilbert are Jamaican immigrants who had been taught to consider England their mother country, and are shocked by the hostile welcome they receive. Queenie is a white working class woman who married Bernard to escape her destiny working on the family pig farm, and then found London and her husband to be not at all what she expected. The novel is told from the point of view of all four characters, as the major issues of their (and our) time – war, immigration, race, the personal courage to do the right thing – shape their lives and their world in unimaginable ways.

 A faithful TV adaptation

The BBC adapted Small Island into a two-part television miniseries. It was one of the most faithful novel-to-TV adaptations I’ve seen. Watching it felt like revisiting the book. I think the care the producers took in adapting the book is reflected in the similarity between the original cover for the novel (L) and the cover image for the video (R).

Small Island book cover

Small Island book cover





BBC Video Cover Image

BBC video cover image









More books to come

Andrea Levy started to write when she was in her thirties. Today, in her fifties, she has written four other novels in addition to Small Island, as well as two collections of short stories, many of which also won important literary prizes. I’m excited to think about all the Andrea Levy books still to be read.

Andrea Levy new

Women and War

Fatigue shirt

My father served on Okinawa in World War II. That 21-year-old Army lieutenant from Chicago probably could not have imagined that 70 years later the U.S. military would still be a dominant force on Okinawa, setting the rules and occupying twenty percent of the land on that tiny, crowded island.

Above the East China Sea

Of course, you don’t need to wear a uniform to be transformed by war. Just ask the two teenaged girls at the heart of Sarah Bird’s luminous and compelling novel, Above the East China Sea.

Okinawan daughter Tamiko Kokuba has eagerly embraced the Japanese propaganda about the crudeness of her own culture and the superiority of the “true Japanese spirit.” She only learns the truth in 1945, when she and hundreds of other Okinawan girls are pressed into service in the nightmarish cave hospitals of the Japanese army.

In 2014, Luz James has just moved to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, yet another leap in the endless hopscotch of her life as the daughter of a single mom who’s a gung-ho U.S. Air Force sergeant. But this new assignment is different, because Luz’s beloved older sister has just been killed in Afghanistan, and Luz isn’t sure she wants to keep on living.

The two girls, separated by generations and cultures, are connected in ways Luz only begins to discover as she learns how to reckon with her family’s history and the long shadow of empire.

As a reader and a writer

As a reader, I was enthralled by Above the East China Sea, and felt bereft when I finished the book and was forced to leave its fictional world. As a writer, I was deeply impressed.

An immense amount of research must have gone into the writing, yet it never seems didactic. I learned a good deal about the history and culture of Okinawa, and fascinating details about the lives of today’s “base kids,” bouncing around the world from one U.S. military post to another, perpetually unable to claim a hometown. Sarah Bird also does something interesting and unexpected with the narrative point of view toward the end of the novel.

Beyond women and war

It’s no mystery that the concept of women and war intrigues me, since I wrote a novel about a woman who served in Vietnam and the impact that experience had on her and her family. So I was surprised to discover that I had only read 10 of the 50 novels described in this excellent article by Soniah Kamal.

Kamal defines her list, quite rightly, not as women writing about war, but as women writing about “conflict, displacement and resilience.” Her list includes some books I’ve loved: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver; American Woman by Susan Choi; Small Island by Andrea Levy; The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat; The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing; Bel Canto by Ann Patchett.

Given the spaciousness of Kamal’s definition, we can all probably think of other novels that might have been included. For me the best – or, depending on your point of view, worst – thing about Kamal’s article is that I now have 40 more novels to add to my to-be-read list.