Book review: The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon | West Indian immigrants in 1950s London

The Lonely Londoners is about a cast of characters who couldn’t be more different from each other. But they have one thing in common: they’re all West Indian immigrants living in London in the 1950s, trying to start their lives over in this strange new place.



This books is like a series of snapshots, allowing us glimpses into the lives of lots of different people. The stories of these men and their families are told from Moses’ point of view; he is an immigrant from Trinidad and was one of the first to arrive in London, which now makes him the token teacher for all the newcomers. Every time a new man moves into the city, he gets sent to Moses, and everyone assumes that he doesn’t mind showing these guys around and telling them how England works. Moses keeps repeating one thing throughout the book: he’s bothered by all these people taking his kindness for granted, but he can never say no because they remind him too much of what he was like when he first arrived in London. And he didn’t have anyone to make settling in easier.

He forget all the brave words he was talking to Moses, and he realise that here he is, in London, and he ain’t have money or work or place to sleep or any friend or anything, and he standing up here by the tube station watching people, and everybody look so busy he frighten to ask questions from any of them.

It’s a novella that’s written the way people speak. Letters are missing here and there, verbs aren’t always conjugated, and while this might sound annoying to read it actually adds so much to the feeling of the book. There is one short chapter that is written entirely in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way, with three or so pages consisting of a single, continuous sentence, and I absolutely loved it. Historically there have been a lot of people of colour who wrote in “standard” English, staying away from the way they would talk to their friends and family in fear of not being accepted by writers who use “proper” English, and in fear of being seen as ignorant, so I absolutely love the fact that Sam Selvon was brave enough to just write the way his characters think and speak.

Having Moses as the central character who knows everyone really helps the narrative focus on one man after the other. Moses runs into an old friend every now and then and it triggers the memories they have shared, how that man first came to London and what has happened in his life since. Then he attends an event with ten different friends, and the author still manages to make every single one of them stand out with their unique personalities and quirks. Most of the characters have peculiar nicknames, but once Moses has explained how those names came to be they suddenly feel perfectly natural. By the end of the book you feel as though you know all of these people and have spent time with them the same way Moses has.

The only thing I will say that might put people off reading this is the representation of women. There is some domestic violence in the novella, and women in general seem to be more of a background occurrence, not really important to any of the characters and only existent as mothers, prostitutes or occasional girlfriends. I had to read this book for my literature course and we had an interesting conversation in my seminar about whether the author agrees with the characters on how they see women or if he is highlighting this kind of representation to criticise it. It’s definitely something to keep in mind, and it brings up questions about narrator vs. author, as well as authorial intention.

But apart from the representation of women, this is a beautiful little book that discusses so many important issues while keeping up a great sense of humour. Moses has a lot of opinions and thoughts on how immigrants are treated in England, how different British people see life in general, and how subtle racism can be at times.

Now Moses don’t know a damn thing about Jamaica – Moses come from Trinidad, which is a thousand miles from Jamaica, but the English people believe that everybody who come from the West Indies come from Jamaica.

It also addresses how when you’re faced with so much hate and disgust every single day, it starts to affect you, and you begin to think that there is something wrong with you. One of the characters starts blaming his skin tone for his problems, and he has a heartbreaking conversation with the colour of his hand.

And Galahad watch the colour of his hand, and talk to it, saying, ‘Colour, is you that causing all this, you know. Why the hell you can’t be blue, or red or green, if you can’t be white? You know is you that cause a lot of misery in the world. Is not me, you know, is you! I ain’t do anything to infuriate the people and them, is you! Look at you, you so black and innocent, and this time so you causing misery all over the world!’

And lastly, it deals with the feeling of being stuck somewhere between your past and your future, in a country that is supposed to give you all these amazing opportunities but that only seems to put up barriers to keep you from turning your life around.

And I can’t go back to sleep, I just lay there on the bed thinking about my life, how after all these years I ain’t get no place at all, I still the same way, neither forward nor backward.

It is a wonderful novella and an incredibly important book, and I urge all of you to go read it right now.



Have any of you guys read this? If yes, what did you think? And if no, do you have any intention of picking it up? I would love to know your thoughts. Also, look at that cute-ass graphic I made to frame the book cover! Isn’t is pretty? I’m gonna do that for all my book reviews from now on.

‘Till next time and happy reading!


Featured image: Freepik

2 thoughts on “Book review: The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon | West Indian immigrants in 1950s London

  1. Aah, yes, I love The Lonely Londoners! I read it in my first year of uni and found it fascinating. It really annoyed me how many of my classmates complained about the dialect – I personally thought that’s what made the book really come to life.

    Liked by 1 person

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