The Lonely Londoners

by Samuel Selvon

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Critical Context (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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Samuel Selvon was born in Trinidad of East Indian ancestry and moved to London in 1950. His first novel, A Brighter Sun (1952), established him as an important and innovative West Indian writer with an international audience. The Lonely Londoners was his third novel and the first set outside of Trinidad. Selvon had gained a reputation for the sensitive handling of Trinidadian dialect in his fiction. In The Lonely Londoners, he experimented with the difficult task of using dialect not only for the reported speech of his characters but also in the narration itself. In effect, the whole novel was written in a dialect which was true to the characters and at the same time intelligible to non-West Indian readers. Selvon abandoned the phonetic or irregular spellings that he had used to convey dialect in his earlier novels and depended instead on the use of distinctive grammatical structures, syntax patterns, vocabulary, and sentence rhythms for his effect. The experiment was largely successful, although his Jamaican, Barbadian, and even his Nigerian characters all seem to speak in the modified Trinidadian creole dialect of the central characters and the narrator.

While Selvon’s use of language has impressed most critics, some have complained that the novel lacks depth and that Selvon was content to dwell on colorful characters and bizarre antics. Moses is often reported as having thought hard, but there is little evidence that his thinking is deep or illuminating. The few philosophical positions that are expressed appear to have been imposed from without rather than having grown organically from the experiences dramatized.

Two of Selvon’s later novels, Moses Ascending (1975) and Moses Migrating (1983), feature the central character of The Lonely Londoners, but no significant advance is made over the earlier book, which stands as a landmark in Commonwealth literature for its impressive use of nonstandard English to convey the entire world of a novel.

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