‘Small Island’ by Andrea Levy

Small_island

Fiction – paperback; Headline Review; 530 pages; 2004.

Small Island is one of those books that has been sitting in my reading queue for two or three years. I was prompted to dig it out when Simon wrote a rather glowing review of it. The deal was cemented when several more of you chipped in on this post and said it would make a good read for a long-haul flight. I promptly packed it in my hand luggage and began to read it on that horrendously long plane ride to Australia.

The story is a complete delight from start to finish. It’s set in London in 1948 but jumps back in time to the Second World War (and earlier) when Jamaican men joined the British forces to fight for the Mother country. There are four main characters — Brits Queenie and Bernard Bligh, and Jamaicans Hortense and Gilbert Joseph — whose individual stories are told in separate sections. The 1948 narrative links them together.

The story begins with Hortense, a highly strung young Jamaican woman, arriving in London to be reunited with her husband, Gilbert. Former air serviceman Gilbert had immigrated months earlier in order to pave the way for their new life together in a new land. But when Hortense finds him living in a tiny ill-equipped room in a lodging house her high expectations are rudely lowered.

But little does Hortense know that the lodging house is presided over by a very fair and open-minded landlady, Queenie Bligh, who ignores her fellow neighbours who don’t approve of her accepting black tenants. Although Queenie doesn’t have much choice — her husband never returned from the War and she has no other means of supporting herself — she’s determined to treat the Jamaicans that live under her roof as equals.

For Hortense and Gilbert it could have been much worse.

Small Island (the title, I assume, could equally apply to both Britain and Jamaica) shows how circumstances and history thrust these two women together, and how the partners they marry come to change their lives too. It adds up to a wonderful historical family-type drama that perfectly captures what it must have been like to live in post-war London when the cultural make-up of the city was undergoing rapid change.

What I appreciated most was Levy’s ability to show the alarming racism that occurred in England at the time. Despite the fact that Jamaica was part of the British Empire few Brits knew where Jamaica was located (several characters believe it’s in “Africa somewhere”) and fewer still wanted to see black faces on the street when Caribbean immigrants started landing on British shores. (There are parallels here with Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners, which gives voice to the Caribbean immigrant experience in the 1950s.)

They speak the same language, and yet can never be understood on the streets of London. Or, as Gilbert points out in one stand-out scene towards the end of the novel, they had fought a common enemy but were not treated as equals.

There’s a lot here, too, about the Second World War and the role that Jamaican men played in it, an intriguing slice of history that’s not widely known.

Levy is, of course, a master storyteller but she never preaches or comes across as if she is pushing a message; there’s a lightness of touch that belies the seriousness of the content. She has an eye for detail and an ear for dialogue. Her characters are believable — the uppity Hortense, the progressive Queenie, the striving-to-always-do-better Gilbert, and the stubborn-but-weak Bernard — and so very human.

Small Island won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2004, the Whitbread Book of the Year in 2004 and the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 2005. It has also been adapted into a two-part television drama which screened on BBC1 last month.

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14 thoughts on “‘Small Island’ by Andrea Levy

  1. Like you, I have had Small Island on my shelf unread for years and perhaps 2010 will be the year that I read it too. I am excited about The Long Song but think I should read Small Island first as it’s well overdue! The good thing about adaptations -film or TV- is that it usually prompts me to pick up a book that would otherwise remain unread for even longer and last year was The Reader; Simon read Small Island so he could watch the adaptation and that has inspireded you and I suspect me to read it at long last.

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  2. Nice review, kimbofo. I enjoyed this when I read it – just a couple of years ago. The characterisation was great, though was there a little too much coincidence at times? (I’m trying to think back). Would like to see the adaptation.

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  3. Oh I am so pleased that you liked this book Kim. There is always that small worry that you rave about a book and tell people they must read something that they might hate it and look at you differently (we have all been on either end of that before I am sure).
    The characters are so human and so vivid and wonderfully drawn and… oh ok I could start and not stop so am shushing. I am very excited about The Long Song, I don’t know about any of her other fiction but something holds me back from it. Yet I don’t know why.

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  4. I missed the TV adaption… I didn’t want to watch it without having read the book first. I hope they replay it soonish, or at least make it available on DVD, as I’m eager to see if it’s as good as the book.

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  5. I think it was largely your comments that convinced me I would like this book — and you were right! The characters are terrific, really. Very lifelike. I kind of expected them to just walk off the page, if you know what I mean.
    I suspect the ABC in Oz will screen the TV adaptation soonish, as the book was on prominent display in the all the Melbourne bookshops I visited earlier this month.

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  6. I foolishly thought that Small Island was her first book but was delighted to find she’s had several others published — I think Small Island was her third or fourth book. At some point, once I’ve whittled down the existing TBR, I’ll get around to reading her other stuff. But I’m slightly fearful that none of the other titles may live up to this one.
    Thanks again for inspiring me to read Small Island; it was definitely worth the effort.

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  7. I noticed the cover image of Small Island on your menu bar yesterday, Jackie. I think you’ll enjoy it: it’s got a good plot and cracking characters, and there are moments that will make you laugh and others that will make you cry. It’s definitely what I would call a dramatic read.

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  8. Thanks, Danielle. Had a lovely time and only wish the journey was not quite as long, because it is both horrendously uncomfortable and expensive! Probably why it s been almost four years since my last trip.
    I think you would like Small Island given your penchant for both British fiction and historical fiction. Do chase down a copy if you can.

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  9. In the film adaptation, Levy makes so much of the photos, from the beginning to the end. One photo is of Michael in Jamaica. He gave it to Queenie. At the end, his son shows in the family photo album a picture of Queenie. That photo of his father would be as important to Michael’s son as was obviously the photo of his mother, Queenie. What happened to the photo of Michael? Why was it not in the album?

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  10. A Small Island is no mean feat as a book, the writing is classy, elegant, and the description of wartime England, one can hear the sirens. I look forward to her new book, and also some time to her earlier book, ” The Fruit of the Lemon” I think it is.

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