Home: A Story of Emigration by Anthony Stevens

Review by Linda Lappin

In this lyrical, hybrid narrative combining novel, documentary, autobiography, and diary, British author, Anthony Stevens pieces together a chapter of his family history: his great grandparents’ emigration from the West of Ireland to the English industrial town of Hull in the nineteenth century, during the Hunger. Through the fictional persona of a retired English doctor in lockdown at the height of the Covid pandemic, the narrator reimagines scenes from his great grandparents’ lives while collecting historical documentation concerning the people, places, and occurrences which his forebears might have encountered in their new country. As his research deepens, he finds himself ruminating on the concept of “Home.” “Can you call or think of a place as back home, when you know for sure, you will never return to it?” he asks in one diary entry.

A blank page, a computer screen, and a window open upon empty streets are the doctor’s main contact with the outside world where events unfolding across the globe reverberate with uncanny echoes from the past. His own ancestors luckily survived a cholera epidemic, despite crushing infant mortality, although the promise of survival heavily depended on one’s economic conditions. Then as now, poor nutrition, limited healthcare, poor sanitation, and overcrowding helped decimate immigrant populations. Then as now, many of the victims coming from elsewhere in hopes of a better life found themselves worse off in some ways than when they set off.  “From the grinding poverty of the countryside to the abject poverty of the town…The Irish in England were the butt of all the usual racist slurs: dirty, drunken, disorderly, and a source of disease.”  But, the narrator argues, immigrants are willing to endure hardship, danger, and indignities in order to improve their basic situation – not so much for themselves, but for those who come afterwards as emigration is an act “resonating beyond the lifetime of the emigrant. It echoes through time.”

Counterpointed to his great grandfather’s story is a short biography patched together from old newspaper clippings of Zachariah Pearson, formerly renowned philanthropist later contested for his support of slavery. By donating land to the Board of Health, Pearson created Hull’s first public park in 1862 intended to provide moments of salutary relaxation to all its citizens, from the poorest to the elites. But the town’s prosperity collapsed due to the Civil War across the pond, when the Union-enforced naval blockade of the Confederate south effectively obstructed cotton shipments to the English textile mills.  Two mills shut down in Hull, leaving many of its immigrant families now unemployed and impoverished. Pearson, in a risky business venture, acquired a fleet and attempted to break the blockade, but failed, and lost all his ships, his fortune, and his reputation, which he struggled to regain. After his death, a plaque was placed in the park in 1897. His life story sinks into gentlemanly oblivion at that point, only to resurface again in 2020, when exponents of Black Lives Matter demanded the plaque be removed due to Pearson’s connection to slavery.

And here we approach the elusive gravity center of this book: the links between slavery, poverty, emigration, and otherness. “What, I wonder, is it like to be born and to live in a country to which some of your ancestors had been brought as slaves?” The narrator acknowledges that his own situation is quite different –as economic migrants, his great grandparents had some choice, some agency, despite their abject poverty and constraints.  For those who had no choice, no agency, he notes, an empty space was left for rage to take root.  For the vanquished, he claims, history is never over. It’s still happening.

Leaving home, we leave a great part of ourselves and put on the garments of a new self. “How long… does the emigrant have to wait before the self he was back home appears to him like an empty, open suitcase?”  The numbing uprootedness experienced by all migrants, constrained or not, the prejudice they face in their new land, the silence imposed from within upon their native tongue, all share the common denominator of otherness and the loss of belonging.

“I am trying to tell a story – first to piece it together, then to crawl inside it,” Stevens writes, then reminds us that we are all carrying around “unlived lives.” Insightful, sometimes puzzling, this work of experimental fiction stirs us to think about where we have come from, who we are now, and how our own stories have been shaped by emigration.