Andrea Levy’s Every Light in the House Burnin’
Review-Headine 1994

Earlier this year I read The Long Song and I was immediately and happily absorbed by Andrea Levy’s storytelling, but I was concerned that she might not hold my interest; instead my interest intensified. Similarly, if I had started with Every Light in the House Burnin’ I might have worried that she wouldn’t be able to sustain my interest beyond her debut, but now I’m determined to fill the gap between her first and her latest: Andrea Levy is now a MRE author for me. (MRE=Must Read Everything)

As with The Long Song, an early passage in Every Light in the House Burnin’ caught my interest: “My dad was a man — most dads are. But my dad had been taught or was shown or picked up that a man was certain things and a woman was others. I don’t know whether he ever questioned the assumptions but I can identify him now as a man thought up in the 1930s and 40s.”

Doesn’t sound very remarkable, now that I look again. But I liked the quiet chuckle at most dads being men. And it’s a universal theme, trying to understand a parent, another time, another set of social and cultural assumptions. And it’s not as simple as it sounds either: only a few pages later, Angela’s dad is doing a basket full of ironing and doing it well enough to garner praise from neutral observers of pressed frills and skirts.

It was interesting enough to cart it home from the library and, after meeting her mom and her brother, I was committed, before I’d even met her sisters or Willie (short for Wilhelmina) the cat. There’s not a lot of talk about chores, but there is a lot of talk about the everyday in this first novel. “Most of my childhood was spent looking at the two grey cheeks of my dad’s backside as he fiddled with the telly.”

But the scenes of Angela’s childhood are remembrances and not random ones, but a set clustered around her gradual acceptance of a fundamental shift in the way she relates to her parents. “I walked home with a heavy feeling in my chest. A burden. I had asked my dad to rely on me and he’d accepted.”

And there’s another universal theme, which, in the hands of another writer might be maudlin or overly sentimental on the page. But Every Light in the House Burnin’ is told in a matter-of-fact tone and there are many humourous moments alongside the serious scenes.

“It’s for your room,” my dad said, still glowing from his gift. “A lovely plant.” It was plastic. A replica of a plant I didn’t recognize. It had green leaves and a pink flower. The plant was pushed down into a plastic pot and held there by a dome-shaped piece of plastic, textured and green to resemble grass. “It’ll last a long time,” my dad said, smiling. That was what worried me…

In a novel like this, you rather expect that the memories will be perfectly formed and carefully placed to enhance the contemporary storyline but not necessarily as potent. In Andrew Levy’s hands, however, it’s the memories that stand out for me. It works brilliantly because it naturally intensifies the today-plot even while seemingly diffusing the high emotion connected with the events in it. In fact, the novel ends with a memory and although it might not have been the strongest scene out of context, as the culmination of the narrative, it was most impressive and affecting. It will take me a long, long time to forget that song.

What of hers have you read? Is she a MRE author for you too?

Companion Reads: Jayne Anne Phillips’ MotherKind, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, Jennifer Baszile’s The Black Girl Next Door, Nalo Hopkinson’s The New Moon’s Arms