Book of the Week: The Housing Lark

Image: Mica Murphy/Penguin

Although published 10 years after The Lonely Londoners, The Housing Lark seems to continue where Sam Selvon’s better-known masterpiece stopped. Originally published in 1964, there are similarities in theme, setting, and style, but Selvon shows far greater control, even restraint in The Housing Lark. This is undoubtedly the work of a more mature, more confident Selvon. So how has it been overlooked for so long by readers?

Selvon, a Trinidadian immigrant to Britain, has often been described as the originator of the template for the British immigrant fiction, especially focusing on characters from the Caribbean; in The Housing Lark he continues his exploration of these themes using a cohort of Caribbean characters living in Brixton. The novel’s launching conceit is simple, even predictable: a search for a home in 1960s London where most landlords won’t rent to Black lodgers.

Led by Bat, short for Barttleby, who is something of a leader in the group, the men and a few women decide to pool together money to buy their own house. However, the plot begins to thicken when Bat proves both corrupt and greedy – to him, and to most of the other men, the idea is just a lark. If, the narrator explains, the plan had been conceived in the winter, when there is less distraction and temptation, it might have worked, but in London’s hedonistic summer, it doesn’t stand a chance. The men want their money back, only Bat has already blown all of it.

What’s notable is the narrator. We never learn the identity of them, but they are clearly a member of the cohort – probably the author himself – who knows the characters intimately and whose voice (which Selvon deploys with freewheeling ease) dictates the tone and direction of the story from the first page.

It means that the story sounds like it is spoken: intimate, convivial, performative, always with an eye for the humorous, always concluding with a moral. The style is digressive, but never wayward, and this is where Selvon’s maturity is most evident; the discipline with which he returns to the narrative thread. Unlike in The Lonely Londoners, the plot here is less episodic and always pivots back to the central conflict generated by the collecting of money to buy a house. If plot is not exactly the lifeblood of this story it is at least a vital sap that energises the narrative and keeps it moving.

Part of Selvon’s genius is his use of flat characters in a complex manner. The characters never really change or grow, but the author puts them in different and varying situations, giving us almost kaleidoscopic glimpses at them and creating an illusion of growth. Gallows is always looking for the fiver he lost many years ago; Harry Banjo is always in love with Jean, Bat’s sister; Bat himself is always unconscionable, scheming, dreaming of a genie to drop out of the wallpaper in his room and give him all he desires. Selvon has been criticised for treating his female characters as objects – there is a lot of wife- and girlfriend-beating in his books, women are generally referred to as “thing” – and yet, it can be argued that some of the most compelling characters in The Housing Lark are the women, especially Jean and Teena.

Jean, a hustler, decides to change her ways because of her feelings for Harry. Teena, in the novel’s final and climactic scene, takes centre stage and saves the house buying dream, which is in serious threat of derailing. In her entreaties to the men to get serious about life, we come closest to hearing the voice of Selvon intruding, injecting a certain heaviness against the book’s generally comedic tone.

But the glue that holds everything together is Selvon’s sense of humour. Almost every single scene, or ballad, is loaded with comedy. The Hampton Garden scene, central and significant in so many ways – one of which is the bringing together of the whole Caribbean community in one place – is also noticeable because of its carnivalesque humor. By simply introducing the Caribbean community into this very English, very prim and proper setting, Selvon turns everything upside down and illustrates perfectly the idea of belonging, of outsider versus insider. As they take a tour of the royal palace they argue loudly, giving their own distorted version of history, afterwards they camp by the Thames, with their pots and rum bottles.  “And this time the boys sprawl on the grass, shirt out, socks and shoes off, belts slackened, scratching and yawning and spitting and hawking and breaking wind, and now and then this bacchanal laughter ringing out: some women washing their pots and pans in the river, and the children dashing about like blue-arse flies and you hearing the elders shout: ‘willemeena! come away from there!’ or ‘albert! if you fall in that river today i leave you to drown!’”

Arguably the work of a great writer in his prime.

Helon Habila is an author. His latest book, Travellers, is out now.

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