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By Shaifali Agrawal 
Title: Six Stories and An Essay; Author: Andrea Levy; Publisher: Tinder Press, UK; Pages: 127; Price: Rs.399

Andrea Levy, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, has six short stories - bound together by the common theme of racial prejudice - penned across her writing career, from her first story, to one commissioned by British Council, and one rejected because it was "too controversial" for the women of England, among other reasons.

The book begins with an essay 'Back to My Own Country', a personal and honest account that goes back to her childhood memory of being humiliated all because of another black man on a London bus; and ends with anger at the unjust neglect of the history of her native Jamaica by British society and a desire to assert the importance and worth of her race.

The compilation helps us understand the various nuances of racism. The stories are high on feelings and emotions ('That Polite Way That English People Have') and human capabilities and dilemmas ('Diary', 'Loose Change'). The anger in Levy's work seems to flow more from the lack of "belonging" than from discrimination.

The last story in the collection, 'Uriah's War', is much more direct as it explores the exploitation of Jamaicans during World War I.

The writing is simple with a non-judgemental tone, but some stories, including 'Deborah', tend to contain trivial details in the middle; and the writing could have been more crisp and tightened.

A one-page introduction before each short story speaks of its inspiration and conception, and makes the reader feel connected to the author. Thus, you enter a story from Levy's side of the racial divide.

Witty, humorous and with endings that catch you off-guard, the stories are enlightening about the things seen but yet hidden. For instance, "February" is a vignette, and reveals the shocking ignorance of other's cultures amongst the people.

The tales end before they begin, but they are worth a read nonetheless. Had the stories been longer, they might have lost the central idea or theme. The collection squeezes out the most intricate, yet usual of everyday experiences from the lives of different characters of the Caribbean lost in the fascination for the English culture.

The character of Blossom in 'That Polite Way...' would linger in your mind for long. It's about the internal conflict of home and aspiration: where one hails from and where one wants to be. The story leaves you sad, not knowing how and when the characters will be freed from mental colonisation.

Perhaps the one telling line from the book, regardless of the context, is in the introduction of the most beautiful story of the collection, 'Loose Change': "If truly tested, how would we react?"

 

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