The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon

The Lonely Londoners, by Samuel Selvon, Book review by Ruth LivingstoneThis book was written the same year as I was born, 1956. A short book, it describes the interweaving lives of the first West Indian immigrants to England as seen through the eyes of an established immigrant, Moses Aloetta. The book is written in the third person and includes a number of characters, but the narrator is firmly established at the outset as Moses.

What I liked about this book: Books that use dialect extensively usually irritate me. But this book is not written in dialect – although you may get that impression when you first open it. Instead, the author uses West Indian grammar and syntax to construct a narrative that is filled with the rhythms of the Caribbean. This powerful technique immediately brings the book to life and establishes a great empathy between the reader and the narrator. The technique serves another function too. Familiar places and well-known customs are rendered anew when described in an unfamiliar style. This draws in the reader. As you read it, you experience a different London – an alien place that is both terrifying and alluring.

He sigh; the damn bus crawling in the fog, and the evening so melancholy that he wish he was back in bed.

There is an interesting section, describing the joys of summertime in London, that runs for 10 pages as one continuous sentence. This is so well written – like a flowing poem – that I failed to realise there were no full stops until I was somewhere on the third page.

Oh what a time it is when summer come to the city and all them girls throw away heavy winter coat and wearing light summer frocks so you could see the legs and shapes that was hiding away from the cold blasts….

The descriptions are sparse but brilliant. Apart from the summer passage I mentioned above, 1950’s London is shown as an inhospitable place of cold and fog, where the characters scratch a living with barely enough money for food or fuel.

What I didn’t like about this book: Although I loved the opening of the book, and enjoyed the subsequent character sketches, I struggled to stay involved through the middle of the book. This was because we lurched from one personal history to another and – apart from the connections across an immigrant community – the narrative seemed fragmented. I felt the book was missing a coherent story line. This was partly retrieved towards the end of the book, when the disparate characters came together at a dance.

This is a great book that:

  • demonstrates the effectiveness of a strong narrative voice
  • makes use of powerful themes – identity and alienation
  • and breaks many traditional conventions.

I have discovered the Open University uses The Lonely Londoners in one of its OpenLearn segments.
You need to read the book first: The Lonely Londoners (Penguin Modern Classics)
Then, follow this link: A230 Reading and studying literature

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