Small Island by Andrea Levy

DATE FINISHED: April 6th, 2012

RATED: ****

SYNOPSIS:  Hortense and Gilbert are a mismatched couple who each have their own reasons for agreeing to marry in haste so that they might leave their small island of Jamaica behind and settle in ‘the mother country’ (another small island). Queenie is their landlady, who met Gilbert during the war, and is one of the few people in London willing to take in ‘coloured’ lodgers (much to the chagrin of her neighbours). Queenie’s own husband is missing, but that seems to be the least of her concerns…

THOUGHTS:   This is the story of four people who have little in common – except perhaps high hopes and disappointment. There is a little crossover, but each character essentially tells their own tale (first Hortense, then Gilbert, Queenie, Bernard) before we see how they all combine as the book reaches its conclusion. Having really enjoyed the narratives and strong characterisation of Hortense, Gilbert, and Queenie, I’m afraid Levy did nearly lose me with Bernard’s story. Bernard was simply difficult to warm to in the same way (although this was the nature of his character, and so in that sense, successfully represented), and I felt cheated of learning more about the characters that I had come to care about. However, when Bernard returns home, everything dovetails nicely.

The warmth with which Levy tells her story is a necessary counterbalance, given the inherent racism of society in the period the book was set (1948), which is really quite shocking. Gilbert bears it all with a remarkably stoic (and polite!) humour: “I tipped her so handsomely she almost smiled on me”. But Levy demonstrates the culture shocks for all concerned during and after wartime, and why this was (one hopes!) a catalyst for broader change.  I found this a far more satisfying read than Levy’s more recent The Long Song, which explores a different period in black history/oppression, but is led more by historical events than character. In Small Island the fallibility and humanity of the characters are what make us care.

FOLLOWING ON:  White Teeth by Zadie Smith, tells a more recent story of multi-cultural society in London; War Crimes for the Home by Liz Jensen offers an alternative but comparable perspective of life during and after wartime Britain.

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