Book Review: The Housing Lark by Sam Selvon

Set in London in the 1960’s, when the UK encouraged its Commonwealth citizens to emigrate as a result of the post-war labor shortage, The Housing Lark explores the Caribbean migrant experience in the “Mother Country” by following a group of friends as they attempt to buy a home together. Despite encountering a racist and predatory rental market, the friends scheme, often comically, to find a literal and figurative place of their own. Will these motley folks, male and female, Black and Indian, from Trinidad and Jamaica, dreamers, hustlers, and artists, be able to achieve this milestone of upward mobility? Unique and wonderful, comic and serious, cynical and tenderhearted, The Housing Lark poses the question of whether their “lark,” or quixotic idea of finding a home, can ever become a reality.

What I Thought:

I first came across Sam Selvon a couple of years ago, when the TV show The Novels That Shaped Our World increased my TBR by many, many volumes! I really like these types of programmes and book lists as, although they are based on the opinions of others, they do lead to exposure to some wonderful books which could otherwise never come to my attention.

The Housing Lark is an incredibly hard-hitting novel that hides its social commentary very cleverly beneath a layer of comedy. Battersby and friends make the decision to club together to buy their own house, and their failure to put any money away to do so – as so many young people often do – is hilarious, but the reasons why they want to dream big are always bubbling away underneath. Lack of decent accommodation and exorbitant rents and a pall of racism over the rental market are all taken in stride by this resourceful group.

This book is very much a character study and as we learn about each member of the group – Harry Banjo who is put in prison in place of someone else and Jean who works as a prostitute at Hyde Park, for instance – and their hopes and dreams, whether they get the house in the end is neither here nor there. It’s more about viewing these characters as representatives of those Commonwealth citizens who came to the UK after WW2 and have been grossly exploited and let down ever since.

It’s great to see books such as The Housing Lark back in print, and making it onto these lists of must-read novels as they are usually so full of what have traditionally been ‘the classics’. Books like this have so much to say in the present day, particularly with today’s generation of young people struggling themselves with the rental market.

The Housing Lark is published by Penguin Classics.

For more information on Sam Selvon, there’s a great profile on The British Library website.

Please note: I received a copy of this book for review via Netgalley, All opinions are, as ever, my own.

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