Shelley Harris’ first novel is about a photograph. The one two-hundred-and-fiftieth of a second it took to take, the events leading up to it and the lives of its subjects after it. A delicately bittersweet account of childhood and of the undercurrents of racism in 1977 British suburbia, Jubilee is a summer-reading must have.
We follow the life of Satish Patel, the introverted cardiologist who, amongst other demons he wearily faces, is horrified when the photograph resurfaces. Considered a national treasure, the picture taken on Jubilee day has a darker significance for Satish, and is a poignant reminder of the cruelty of adults and children alike.
As the reality of the pictures deeper meaning is slowly unfolded throughout the chapters, we’re given an intimate portrayal of the world as Satish saw it as a child and an immigrant in the 1970s. Often heartbreakingly funny, and at times, just plain heartbreaking, Jubilee is full of thoughtful nostalgia and an effortless charm.
Glancing between eras; we meet all characters before and after the infamous picture is taken. Aligning past and present so seamlessly allows us to see if, and how, the actions of the past do indeed affect the behaviours of our future. As Satish reassures himself “we are all better than the worst thing we’ve done”, readers can contemplate a sense of justice in how the lives of characters map out.
The narrative is subtle, and the murky topic of racism is dealt with with such a finesse that it doesn’t seem to impede on the innocence of the children we are reading about. The way Harris writes about childhood is a genuine, realistic interpretation of how childrens’ relationships work- the hierarchey of friendships, the relevance of race and age, the attacking and protecting of each other.
In exploring the story of this photo- this one two-hundred-and-fiftieth of a second- Harris masterfully deals with an entire society’s attitudes towards immigrants, and shows the beginning of a change in those attitudes in the coming-of-age of it’s children.
A surprisingly light read considering the sadness of some of its themes, Jubilee is a beautifully written and moving story about innocence. It’s characters, relationships and plot line are so simple yet so plausible that you can’t but help admire Harris’ style- and to certainly look forward to a second novel.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 28TH JULY 2012 http://theyorker.co.uk/arts/artand%20literature/literature/11998