Book Review: “Never Far From Nowhere” by Andrea Levy

Never Far From Nowhere is Andrea Levy’s 1996 coming of age novel set London during the 1970s. Levy also wrote the better known Small Island. The book tells the story of two sisters, Olive and Vivien. The two girls are the children of Caribbean immigrants to England. Also the sisters are very different as siblings often turn out to be. The older sister, Olive, has the darker skin tone and the curlier hair. She is the smarter and tougher of the two. She wants to get out on her own soon as possible. Meanwhile, Vivien is three years younger than Olive and also lighter skinned with wavy, not curly, black hair. Vivien is also smart, though perhaps not as smart as Olive, but she much more wants to fit into the “white world” around her. She even goes as far as to say she is not of Jamaican descent, but that her family is from Mauritius.

Because of the differences in their looks, Olive has a much tougher life than Vivien. Both try and make their way out of their lives of council housing (government housing) into a wider and more materially successful world. Both of course suffer from the usual teenage pressures of getting good grades, of peer pressure and of parents who want them to make good. This is only multiplied by the subtle and not so subtle prejudice they seem to be subjected to seemly every minute of their lives.

Vivien manages to earn excellent grades in school and is soon off to college leaving Olive behind. But according to Olive, Vivien is “black” as she is and will never be totally accepted into the white world because of it, and no matter how hard she tries.

The girls’ stories are told in chapters of alternating narration, so the reader is on one page seeing the world through Vivien’s eyes and the next is seeing the same world through Olive’s eyes. Also the chapters are very short, generally just a few pages, which means the reader is rather bounced back and forth between the two points of view. Levy’s London is an odd place, it seems that Olive and Vivien’s family are the only black people around, and all the rest of the characters are white.

Levy’s writing is clear and easy to read, but this book is unrelentingly bleak and sad. According to Levy, life is full of nothing but disappointment and, if you are black, constant racism and misery.

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