Review: Every Light in the House Burnin’ – Andrea Levy

Every Light in the House Burnin'
Every Light in the House Burnin’ by Andrea Levy

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Opening Passage: My dad once drank six cups of tea and ate six buttered rolls.Not in the course of a day, which would be nothing unusual. No, he drank six cups of tea and ate six buttered rolls one after the other to avoid them being wasted.

It’s hard to think of what to say about this book. It was emotional, sometimes, and then at times highly mundane. It feels like an ordinary memoir because of its essential banality. The writing lends itself to the normalcy of the everyday life of an everyday family.
The story is centered around a Jamaican family living in London and is partially about their struggles dealing with racism. But the essence of the tale lies in the protagonist and the family’s relationship with the father.
The chapters of the book are divided into ordinary subjects such as “The Cat” and “The Telly”, the later chapters that don’t have a name are the ones dealing with the father’s illness, and are all told from the point of view of the youngest child in the family, Angela.
Right off the bat the reader gets a sense of the old fashioned, slightly selfish and in-compassionate personality of the father.

“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.”

“A man did not have to be loving and affectionate. A man had to know everything and never be seen not to understand the world. A man would help around the house only when asked but a man always emptied the bins.
My dad was a man and he did what he thought was expected of him but couldn’t understand when more was demanded.”

The apparent injustice of the father is softened slightly by the fact that this book was written about a time when families weren’t expected to be as emotionally open and frank with one another. Father’s in general may not have been the compassionate parent especially in the lives of their daughters.
But that does not take away from the frustration in the protagonist who expressed on multiple occasions that she wished she belonged to another family. Very little of it had to do with being colored, a lot to do with family dynamics.

“How can you explain your family conventions – the secrecies, the codes, the quirks, to someone who’s never lived them?”

The father, who had a tendency to disregard his children’s wants and desires without a thought, made it normal for the family to not expect much of him. It was a way of life, so it never harbored any feelings of resentment.

“My dad would often spend whole weekends fiddling with the television. He would take the back off, remove valves, tinker with wires, take bits out and hold them up to the light. When we protested that we’d like to watch something, he’d look at us incredulously and say “That’s why people don’t like to have children.”

The story goes through this family’s life of unfairness borne in silence, spoken and unspoken grudges, wishes unfulfilled and helplessness in the face of ‘the way things are’. Or were in this case.
It brings to light the question of how these factors tarnish a family’s sense of wholesomeness, and whether giving up or giving in is really for the greater good.

I kept waiting for the part of the book where something so unbelievably unjust would take place that it would cause a blowup. But in a true-to-life kind of story, these things don’t come about and in a true-to-life kind of way, they didn’t. What did come about was the father’s illness that was painful and drawn out. I can’t tell if it was supposed to cause sympathy or just showcase that no matter how unfair the circumstances may be, families do not abandon you.
It was emotional and heart wrenching but only if you put yourself in the shoes of a person watching their father slowly die. Because the protagonist herself actually goes into very little emotional detail. The most satisfying passage in the book finally came:

“As I listened to him scream, I began to get angry with him. An anger I could hardly bear to feel. Why couldn’t he die gracefully, with dignity? Fading silently from life with a gentle smile and a touching last request. So his family could stand round his death bed and weep and mourn their loss.No, he had to die kicking and screaming, being pulled from life, being robbed. The loudest noise he had ever made in his life. The biggest protest. The first rail against injustice. Why now? Because he didn’t want to die and he didn’t want to go, he hadn’t finished yet. Why now? When the pain and embarrassment could rob me of my grief?”

The writing in this book prevents me from selecting any lines that stood out. I found it easier to select passages that as a whole would be more significant than lines. The book has its funny moments and it’s heart crunches but just like in life, they occur once every few mundane events later.

Favorite Passages:

1. I put the stress on the word father>, which always sounded so grand and middle-class. It was hard to imagine my dad as a father. (pg.89)
2. After that present, I asked my dad if I could have money for Christmas. Money was a much safer option and it didn’t last as long. (pg. 106)
3. Traditions handed through the decades which were untouched by time or imagination. (pg.181)
4. In that building were experiences waiting to test me. There was pain there – not physical, not for me, but pain that you can’t see coming, that smacks you inside and pulls and rips at you. (pg. 239)
5. The loss of life that really happened weeks ago had finally ended. (pg. 246)

 

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