Book Reviews,  Purple Book Club

Fruit of the Lemon and the Stories of Our Elders

Synopsis

“Faith Jackson fixes herself up with a great job in TV and the perfect flatshare. But neither is that perfect – and nor are her relations with her overbearing, though always loving family. Furious and perplexed when her parents announce their intention to retire back home to Jamaica, Faith makes her own journey there, where she is immediately welcomed by her Aunt Coral, keeper of a rich cargo of family history. Through the weave of her aunt’s storytelling a cast of characters unfolds stretching back to Cuba and Panama, Harlem and Scotland, a story that passes through London and sweeps through continents.” – Goodreads

For me, Fruit of the Lemon was really a book of two halves: Faith’s ‘sheltered’ life in England and her journey of enlightenment in Jamaica. From the outset, it is clear that Faith knows very little about her Jamaican family or her roots, presumably because her parents never talked about it. Their silence on the issue doesn’t really bother them until Faith starts working and moves in with her friends, who are all white and two of them are men. From there, the cultural differences begin to emerge and racism begins to rear its ugly head.

Faith’s parents – traditional socially conservative Jamaicans – are concerned when they realise she is living with two men, as well as the fact that the house is an ugly pig sty. But their concern about Faith’s lack of understanding of her own identity really peaks after a catalogue of events that starts with Faith coming across the aftermath of an attack of a Black woman and her bookshop, committed by the National Front. Faith’s housemate Simon witnesses the attack and comes to the aid of the woman. The attackers have smacked the woman in the head with a bar, spray-painted “NF” and facials slurs and smeared faeces over the books. Faith, naturally, is shaken by the incident – by the violence, the racism. But her housemates are more concerned for Simon’s well-being and, to make matters worse, start making jokes about it, with no regard for her feelings and the impact seeing something like that would have on her as a Black woman, because why would they? Especially that drama queen Marion with her racist family (I absolutely despise her).

So, without giving away too much of the plot, Faith travels to Jamaica because, as her mother says, “everybody should know where they come from.” Faith stays with her Aunt Coral, where she makes a number of discoveries about her heritage and family history. Now, for full disclosure, I did not find Fruit of the Lemon as gripping as Small Island. But I nonetheless enjoyed it for personal reasons – as I grew up in Jamaica, it took me down memory lane: the food, the satin church dresses, the potholes. It also exposed, through the stories of Faith’s family members, the impact of colonialism. Colonialism, as it was designed to, did a number on Jamaica. Despite the country’s motto “Out of Many, One People,” racism and colourism remain a societal issue even today, and Levy shows some of how and why that is through the stories of characters such as Constance and Rosemary and Matilda.

But what Faith’s trip to Jamaica really made me think about is the value of the stories of our elders. This trip to Jamaica proves to be a revelation for Faith, and she comes back with a much stronger idea of, and pride in, who she is and she got that from learning about her family’s history and life in Jamaica over generations. I was fortunate enough to grow up in Jamaica and learn the country’s history in school. Had I not, I think I would in many ways be like Faith at the start of the novel – with some knowledge of my background but there still being some disconnect, because my parents never really talked about our family history or Jamaican history that much either. It’s only in more recent years that I’ve learned as much as I have, as I have asked more questions and the socio-political climate of this country has made the matter even more pertinent than before.

It has been suggested/discussed a few times on social media, that we should do our best as young Black Brits to document the stories of our elders. We live in a country that actively works to erase our history – the government destroyed the landing cards of the Windrush Generation, for example – so we need to ensure we document it and maintain our own archives. Our families had it hard coming to this country and some may well have had it hard at home too, and it’s important for us to really know where we come from, as Mildred Jackson says. We already have some great resources, such as the Black Cultural Archives, and I’m glad these conversations are happening more and more now too.

Conclusion

As I said before, this novel is not as gripping (in my opinion) as Small Island. However, it does display the impacts of colonialism and racism on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as exploring the importance of knowing our history on our identity. I would have liked to have seen how Faith’s newfound sense of pride in herself and her family shaped her life going forward and her relationship with her ‘friends’, but perhaps Levy felt like that wasn’t really the point. Overall, it was a good read and I would recommend to anyone who has interests in the themes I’ve mentioned.

Have you read this novel or any other works by the author? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

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