Andrea Levy, writer of bestselling Windrush generation novel Small Island (Headline), has died from cancer at the age of 62, with the publishing community paying tribute to how she "reshaped the literary world".
The author died on Thursday after the cancer she was first diagnosed with six years ago recurred, the Guardian reported. A Headline spokesperson told The Bookseller that Levy had been ill for some time. Last October, Levy said: “We’re all going to die. It’s just that I’ve got a pretty good idea when I’m going to die and you don’t.”
A number of voices from the books industry revealed their sadness at the news. Levy's longtime editor Jane Morpeth said: "I was incredibly honoured to call her my friend. As her editor for Small Island, The Long Song and Six Stories and An Essay, I was so proud to watch her win prizes, be read by millions of people and reshape the literary world around her." Morpeth, Headline's former m.d., added: "Her legacy is unique and her voice will be heard for generations to come. I miss her."
Mari Evans, m.d. of Headline, said: "Andrea Levy's extraordinary writing is woven into the fabric of Headline's publishing history and will continue to infuse the spriti of our future publishing. Her novels have perhaps never been more relevant or important in their questioning of identity and belonging. May we continue to learn the lessons so elegantly laid out by one of the greatest novelists of her generation. Our thoughts are with Andrea's husband, Bill, and her family."
Kate Mosse, co-founder of the Women's Prize, told The Bookseller: "We are desperately sad to hear of the death of Andrea Levy. The winner of the Women's Prize for Fiction in 2004 (then the Orange Prize), Andrea was long-listed for the very first Prize in 1996 (for her second novel Never Far From Nowhere) and, in the second year, generously agreed to be a judge.
"Believing in the profound ability of fiction to change hearts and minds, Andrea brought to that process the same fierce intelligence, joy of language, wry wit, clarity of thought and uncompromising humanity that characterises her writing. From Every Light in the House Burning and ground-breaking Small Island to the dazzling The Long Song and Six Stories & an Essay, she was a brilliant, principled, inspirational writer - one of the most important literary voices of our time."
Waterstones fiction buyer Bea Carvalho added: "We’re all deeply saddened to hear the news of Andrea Levy’s death. Her contributions to modern literature and the conversation about the Windrush generation were hugely important, and her voice will be much missed. We were pleased that the recent TV adaptation gave her work a new audience, and we look forward to sharing her wonderful books with many more readers for years to come."
Dialogue Books publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove said on Twitter: "Andrea 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. It’s a huge loss to the community, to writers and to readers and I am devastated."
Georgina Moore, Headine communications director, tweeted this morning: “A very sad day, and a huge loss. I was so lucky to have worked with Andrea on Small Island.”
When Levy began to write fiction, living in London in her 30s where she enrolled on a CityLit Creative Writing course, she set out to tell the stories of black Britons like herself, but could find few role models in the UK, a Headline spokersperson said. Her first publishing deal came in 1994, with Headline, when editor Geraldine Cooke acquired Every Light in the House Burnin' for the launch list of the Review imprint. This was followed by Never Far From Nowhere (1996) and Fruit of the Lemon (1999) all of which were widely praised.
Levy had written three novels in the 1990s but it was her fourth book, Small Island (Tinder Press), that won her fame and a string of prizes. The novel examined the experiences of the Windrush generation and the problems faced by those who arrived in the UK and the adjustments from people already living there. The novel won the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Whitbread Novel Award, the Whitbread Book of the Year award, the Orange Best of the Best, and the Commonwealth Writer's Prize. It was also turned into a successful drama by the BBC.
She later told the Guardian: “Thanks to Small Island, I don’t have to pay the mortgage anymore. There’s not a day goes by that I’m not grateful I’m in that position … Now I can explore what I’m passionate about.”
Levy’s own father had sailed to England from Jamaica on the Windrush in 1948, with her mother later joining him. Levy was born eight years later. She did not begin writing until her mid-30s, frustrated by a lack of books reflecting the black British experience .
Her most recent novel, The Long Song (Tinder Press), was set in 19th century Jamaica and told the story of a house slave. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and also adapted by the BBC in 2018. Most recently, she published Six Stories and an Essay (Tinder Press) in 2014, a series of short stories and a piece about her Caribbean heritage.
In the UK, she sold a total of 1.23 million books for £7.9m, with Small Island her bestseller, selling 758,203 copies in paperback and a further 120,749 for the TV tie-in. It is the biggest-selling winner of the Women’s Prize to date.