Andrea Levy, who has died of cancer at the age of sixty-two, was the author of six acclaimed books including Small Island (2004), which won the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Whitbread Book of the Year and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and The Long Song (2010), shortlisted for the Man Booker and winner of the Walter Scott Prize.
Andrea’s father, Winston Levy, came to Britain on the Empire Windrush in 1948, soon to be followed by his wife Amy. Their four children were born in London and, after a series of one-room bedsits, raised in a small council flat on a north London housing estate. Andrea was the youngest, ‘a sickly child’, she later said, who went to the local grammar school. Although Winston and Amy pressed their children to do their homework and ‘better themselves’, there were few books in the household. ‘The TV went on as soon as we got home from school and stayed on til we went to bed.’ Andrea studied textiles at Middlesex Polytechnic and later worked briefly as a costume assistant for the BBC and the Royal Opera House. She didn’t begin writing until her thirties, when she attended a writing course at City Lit.
Her first novel was the semi-autobiographical Every Light in the House Burnin’ (1994). It was followed by Never Far From Nowhere (1996) and Fruit of the Lemon (1999). Each were critically acclaimed but small-scale in terms of sales and she reached a point that many novelists reach—the early work respectably but uneventfully published and the pressure on to produce something bigger and better, what the publishing industry calls ‘a breakout book’.
It was around this time that Andrea and I met and became friends. We did a reading event together where I had talked about working on an historical novel based on my family history and she rang me up afterwards and said, ‘Me too, can we have dinner?’ At that first meal, we had a good old moan about the vicissitudes of a writing career and how hard it was to plough on novel after novel when nothing much was happening. At one stage, she confessed, she had considered giving up. She wasn’t even sure the next one would be published. The book she was working on was Small Island.
After the Orange, Whitbread and Commonwealth prizes, Small Island went on to be declared the Orange Best of the Best in 2005—the best winner of the first decade of the prize—and to sell over a million copies in this country alone. In 2009, it was adapted as a BBC television series starring actors that are now among the biggest names in British drama. David Oyelowo, Benedict Cumberbatch, Naomie Harris and Ruth Wilson played the two young couples, one black, one white, whose lives intertwine in postwar London. It was a book that ‘defined a decade’, according to the Guardian—and yet with the recent Windrush scandal, it could not be more up to date. It is currently being adapted as a stage production by the Royal National Theatre.
Nowadays, the list of high-achieving black British novelists is long, although not nearly long enough: Zadie Smith, Malorie Blackman, Aminatta Forna, Dreda Say Mitchell, Dorothy Koomsom, Courttia Newland, Diana Evans, Bernadine Evaristo, Helen Oyeyemi, Caryl Philips, Irenosen Okojie to name just a few. It is easy to forget how recent their successes are. A literary culture requires a broad collection of writers each different from the other to break free from the ghettoising assumption that black writing is of ‘minority interest’. As Andrea herself put it in a recent edition of the BBC documentary Imagine: ‘There was this sense from publishers that… no black person at that time could carry a universal story… a white person wouldn’t read it and think that reminds me of my family. I mean, heavens forfend!’
The idea that the story of black characters such as Gilbert and Hortense in Small Island could not be universal was blown apart by the phenomenal success of the book. Many writers might have put their feet up for a bit but she went on to write The Long Song. It irked her that the experience of being on the Man Booker shortlist proved that assumptions about a black woman novelist were still alive and kicking. ‘All the questions I was asked implied I should be grateful,’ she told me, ‘things like, you must be so thrilled to be shortlisted.’ By that time she was already a multiple award-winning internationally bestselling author. She had also been diagnosed with cancer. It was a bittersweet time full of career success but with the possibility of personal calamity lurking in the background.
She took on her illness with characteristic verve and whatever she was going through in private, always referred to it lightly. She seemed to be surviving cancer so well that I had almost forgotten she had it and hadn’t been in touch for some time when we bumped into each other at the British Museum one day and rekindled our friendship. In an email exchange she confessed she was bored with hospital appointments so I told her I would take her to lunch at The Ivy. I leaned on my publisher to get us a good table at short notice and we sat in the middle of the room talking about writers and editors we knew—later we went to Foyles and she suggested we bought each other books. I gave her Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal and she gave me Guilia Ender’s Gut. ‘It’s great as long as you’re okay with reading all about poo.’
Most of our lunches were raucous and gossipy affairs, until the day when she told me she couldn’t do lunch any more and that from now on I would be visiting her at home. She talked about dying with frankness and practicality—she was keen for the friends who really knew her to talk and write about her when she finally went and we discussed the possibility of me inventing a fact to put about as a private joke, something like, ‘Few people knew that Levy was also a talented bassoonist.’ I’m tempted—but it wouldn’t be the same without her here to share the laugh.
Andrea made a point of enjoying life as much as possible for the years that the doctors said her treatments were palliative. Apart from seeing friends and family and spending time with her beloved husband Bill, one of the factors that cheered her greatly was the continuing interest in her work. She lived to see The Long Song filmed and broadcast—she was an executive producer. She attended some of the early work-shopping of Small Island at the Royal National Theatre. And Alan Yentob came calling for Imagine. The last time she came out in a large group of people was in November, at the screening organised by the BBC and Oxford Films for Andrea’s family and friends. Ripples of laughter ran round the room when she put the presenter right a couple of times: that was very Andrea.
As well as being an extraordinary tale of huge writing success from a standing start, Andrea’s life was the story of a great love affair, that with her husband Bill Mayblin, a graphic designer who she met through mutual friends in 1981. When she started writing, she read her work out loud to him, and he was holding her handbag for her when her Orange Prize win was announced. ‘Damn, I’ve got her speech in this handbag!’ She managed to improvise with grace. She took him to all her literary festival trips overseas. ‘My worst nightmare is being stuck somewhere abroad for whatever reason and unable to get back to Bill.’ When illness struck, Bill was there for every hospital appointment throughout a decade of treatments, hopes and setbacks.
Like many of their friends, I could only watch in admiration at the stoicism and laughter they shared in the terminal stages of her illness. Visiting them at their home in North London towards the end was a privilege. ‘I’m not in pain and I’m not scared,’ she said, on my last trip there, ‘but it ain’t long, love.’ Frank, funny and above all hugely talented, Andrea Levy will be remembered as a novelist who broke out of the confines assigned to her by prejudice to become a both a forerunner of Black British excellence and a great novelist by any standards.