Wednesday, 31 August 2011

East Neuk/Small Island

I'm lucky enough to be sitting at the tip of a glorious green and gold peninsula overlooking the North Sea. Overhead a skein of wild geese are flying in a raggedy V formation.  Behind me, the landscape of my childhood rolls away in gentle hills, with grey stone walls dividing fields of wheat, oats and barley. How lovely it is to bring my own children here, to watch them dig with buckets and spades on the astonishing apricot- coloured sand and hope they absorb some of the DNA of this place as the east wind dries the salt on their skin.

I always like to take something incongruous on holiday which is why I've brought Small Island by Andrea Levy - a tale of immigration, racism and empire - to this cosy, rural and overlooked corner of Scotland. It's a beautifully written tale of the impact of migration and immigration just after the Second World War - multiple narrators handled with real skill, heavy themes treated with grace and lightness. Beautiful. 

Without forcing connections between this place and the book, I can relate to Gilbert in Small Island who feels at one point like a prisoner on his native island of Jamaica:

"Everywhere I turn I gazed on the sea. The palm trees that tourists thought rested so beautiful on every shore were my prison bars. Horizons were my tormenting borders. I envied the pelican, I envied the crow - with wings they could fly easy from this place to rest in some other."

That perfectly encapsulates how I felt here in the East Neuk as a fifteen-year-old.  I shared Gilbert's fury at being trapped in the wrong place, and harboured a longing to sprout wings and fly off with those wild geese. Why was I here, in the midst of ploughed fields, where Nothing Ever Happened? In plot terms, that's an important moment - it's a point at which the protagonist longs to escape the Ordinary World, as Martha Alderson the Plot Whisperer describes it, so that the story may begin.

It's strange how things work out - within a year I had indeed flown 300 miles south to Birmingham and then a series of other cities in which I have played out my adult days so far. Yet I've returned here often in my imagination; I've written it out of my system over and over again in my novel, but the longing for this place remains like an itch of sand against the skin. So now I'm back, like the American tourists tracing their heritage, or the swifts and swallows who return to the same fields each summer with their young.

It's a mark of the strength of Andrea Levy's writing that at the end of her novel,  I wondered if Gilbert and Hortense ever returned to Jamaica. Perhaps in old age. And I hoped they did.

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