, Research Paper
A bit of a grey areaThe White FamilyMaggie GeeSaqi Books ?11.95, pp420The shortlist for this year’s Orange Prize for fiction is dominated by home-grown talent, but of its six contenders none is more deliberately British than The White Family. In this, Maggie Gee’s eighth novel, she has left behind the experimental excesses of her youth to focus on the prejudice and violence she perceives as ingrained in contemporary society.It is a narrative charged with change and transformation, and opens against the vivid canvas of a city park in springtime; this is Hillesden, the fictitious heart of London’s multi-cultural borough of Brent, and with the local chemist swallowed up by a betting shop and the bakery long since closed, Albion Park stands as the last remaining monument to an orderly, regimented past.Alfred White, the park keeper, has patrolled his patch of Eden for an epic half-century, guarding against stray footballs and untoward goings-on in the gents’; a man as anachronistic as his job title, he loves his bookish wife, May, with a mute devotion, but has driven away two of their children and stunted a third with his violent temper and knee-jerk bigotry. Nevertheless, when an altercation with a young black family proves too much for Alfred’s aged constitution, his family comes to gather around his hospital bedside.Darren, the eldest, flies in from America, where he is a successful journalist, still choked with anger at his father and already on his third wife. Shirley has been left a wealthy widow by her Ghanaian husband – a marriage that caused almost as much familial strife as her current relationship with Leroy, a black social worker – but swaddled in cashmere and silks, she bears a sadness all her own.As a teenager, Shirley sensed a sexual sting in her father’s punches, and this has taken root in Dirk, the skin-headed baby of the family. Brutalised and repressed, he desperately seeks acceptance as well as scapegoats in the company of loutish BNP-types. By the end of the novel, Dirk’s inarticulate hatred of ‘coloureds’ will have coupled with his latent homosexuality to bloody effect, spurring Alfred to perform one final, redemptive act of duty.The White Family is a worthwhile novel, but Gee’s skilful structure and tender, precise prose are undermined by riffs on pop psychology: as Alfred realises that the ‘enemy’ is no more than a bunch of ‘giant teenagers’, his eyes are opened to their exoticism and the ‘gleaming black’ of their skin.Gee is unflinching in her exploration of the causes and consequences of racism, but too often she delves beneath the skin of her archetypes to come up with near stereotypes, and for all that it aims at up-to-the-minute, the book remains curiously, naïvely dated. As White Teeth, that other multi-cultural Brent novel showed, today’s racial landscape is coloured less in blacks and whites than myriad shades of grey.