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Amadan na Briona

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Lonely Londoners

The Lonely Londoners - Samuel Selvon This is a unique book, written in the same West Indian patois spoken by its characters, Afro-Caribbean immigrants to London in the 1950s. There isn't really a story, but a bunch of stories. Starting with Moses Aloetta, the veteran immigrant from Trinidad who is now responsible for initiating greenhorns to life in this cold, white city, we circle through the lives of a dozen or so other working class blacks from the West Indies. They used to think London was the center of the universe; now they have to cope with living in a place that makes it clear in the "English manner" that they aren't wanted.

Us Yanks are familiar with the "American Dream" and all the promise and hypocrisy and betrayal and disappointment it implies, especially for immigrants of the wrong skin color. You could say this is a book about the "Imperial Dream"; immigrants to Britain arriving with dreams that are too often crushed, and Britain's fading dreams of empire, for whom all the immigrants landing on its shores from former colonies are an unwelcome symbol of its crumbling glory.

Newcomer Galahad is the second person we meet, right off the boat from Trinidad. He's a brash young man who's full of talk, putting on a brave front that quickly erodes. We go on to meet Cap, the eternal hustler who's always drifting from hotel to hotel, woman to woman; Five Past Midnight (so-nicknamed because his skin is so dark); Harris, the most assimilated of the crew, who throws elegant parties attended by white people and speaks and dresses like them but slips into creole when he's around "the boys"; Lewis, always looking for his runaway wife; and half a dozen other comical, tragic figures. Each of them gets a page or two here or there, and then we skip to someone else's story.

It took a while to get into this book, but the voice grew on me, and it's very easy to empathize with the characters, who represent the full range of human virtues and vices. Selvon was writing fiction but it felt like he was writing about people he knew; maybe he was. Don't expect a profound meditation on race relations or colonialism, even though those things pervade the book, and don't expect a plot, but it's still worth reading both for the viewpoints and the prose. In the end, the circle comes back around to Moses, who meditates on how far he's come without getting anywhere. You feel what they feel, the coldness and energy, hope and hunger, and the fight for survival in 1950s London. Very different from anything I've read before and not my usual sort of book, but I definitely recommend it. Don't pay attention to all the college students griping about how they had to read this book for a class and hated it; it's worth reading for its own sake.