Best-selling British novelist Andrea Levy, who chronicled the experiences of black immigrants in Britain, died Feb. 14. She was 62.
Georgina Moore of Tinder Press announced her death in a statement. Ms. Levy reportedly had breast cancer, but other details were not immediately available.
Ms. Levy, who once worked in the wardrobe departments of the BBC and the Royal Opera, did not turn to writing until she was well into her 30s. Her fourth novel, “Small Island” (2004), about the experiences of two couples in postwar London — one white, one black — sold more than 1 million copies in Britain and brought her literary renown.
The book won the Orange Prize for the year’s best English-language work of fiction written by a woman — beating out Margaret Atwood and Shirley Hazzard, among other authors. It also received the Whitbread Book Award and Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, two prestigious competitions open to men and women.
“Small Island” was later adapted as a BBC miniseries starring Naomie Harris, David Oyelowo and Benedict Cumberbatch.
The deeply researched novel was based in part on the experiences of Ms. Levy’s Jamaican-born parents. “All my books have been an exploration of my past, really,” she told Salon.com in 2005. “They’re all about family and trying to understand it.”
Her father, who had served in the Royal Air Force during World War II, was one of almost 500 West Indians who came to England in 1948 aboard a former troop ship called the Empire Windrush. Their arrival, which gave rise to the term Windrush Generation, is sometimes considered the beginning of multiculturalism in Great Britain.
Ms. Levy’s mother came to Britain several months later. The disillusionment she felt is reflected in Hortense, the central black female character in “Small Island”:
“As my feet had set down on the soil of England an Englishwoman approached me. She was breathless. Panting and flushed. She swung me round with a force that sent one of my coat buttons speeding into the crowd with the velocity of a bullet. ‘Are you Sugar?’ she asked me. I was still trying to follow my poor button with the hope of retrieving it later as that coat had cost me a great deal of money. But this Englishwoman leaned close in to my face and demanded to know, ‘Are you Sugar?’
“I straightened myself and told her, ‘No, I am Hortense.’ ”
In “Small Island,” Hortense and her husband, Gilbert, find lodging with a working-class white woman in a poor part of London. The woman’s boorish husband later returns after a long absence in India, and the story is told through the eyes of the four principal figures.
The book graphically shows the racial insults, both casual and overt, black Britons were subjected to at the time. It also portrays, with humor and sometimes shocking bluntness, how the views of the four central characters change or harden over time.
“‘Small Island’ brought something unfamiliar to the literature of white-black relations: rarely had so many varieties of racism been anatomized with such gentle mockery and to such fine tragicomic effect,” novelist Fernanda Eberstadt wrote in the New York Times in 2010. “When you add Levy’s almost Dickensian gifts for dialogue and storytelling to her humorous detachment, her ability to see race hatred as yet another twist of the English class system, it’s easy to understand why she has become something of a celebrity in Britain.”
Ms. Levy’s 2010 novel “The Long Song,” set on a 19th-century Jamaican plantation before slavery was abolished, made the shortlist for Britain’s most prestigious literary award, the Man Booker.
British attitudes about race had not changed all that much from her parents’ time, Ms. Levy noted in 2004, when she was nominated for the Orange Prize. Some newspapers noted that only one Englishwoman, Rose Tremain, was a finalist for the award — although Ms. Levy had lived in London her entire life.
“Wherever I go I get taken for a native: Spain, Italy, North Africa, South America,” she told the Sunday Times of London. “Except in England.”
Andrea Levy was born March 7, 1956, in London. Her mother, who had been a teacher in Jamaica, was rejected by British schools at first and worked as a seamstress and later became a school administrator. Her father, a bookkeeper in Jamaica, worked for the British postal service.
Her parents considered themselves British and seldom spoke about Jamaica. It wasn’t until her late teens that Ms. Levy learned that her father was one of the Windrush passengers.
As a child, Ms. Levy said, she watched a lot of television but was not an enthusiastic reader.
“When I’m writing, I see it in my head as if it was on the telly,” she told the Associated Press in 2005. "I think television and film are more of an influence on our storytelling and our books than we care to admit.”
She studied textile design at a London college and later worked for the BBC and the Royal Opera before becoming a partner in a graphic design business with her future husband, Bill Mayblin. In addition to her husband, survivors include two stepdaughters.
Ms. Levy was 23 before she read a novel in its entirety — “The Women’s Room,” by Marilyn French.
“It was the first time that I’d read a book which spoke to me, entertained me, told me stories in a way that changed the way I felt about something,” she said. “So it was a profoundly moving thing.”
She took a writing course and turned to books by African American writers, including Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and Alice Walker, but there were relatively few novels at the time by black British women.
"'Write what you know’ is the mantra of creative writing courses, so that is what I started by doing,” Ms. Levy told Mosaic magazine in 2012.
After “Small Island” and “The Long Song” — which was also adapted for a BBC production — Ms. Levy published a collection in 2014 that included several short stories and an essay about her Jamaican background.