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.