A must read for Literature Lovers, and a must read for those who are interested in interracial relationships, culture ex change, race and racism, the Caribbean, and the Second World War.
I loved this book, but I realize that I am very biased because I am Jamaican, and have many relatives who emigrated to the UK from Jamaica, so the characters were immediately real and recognizable to me Some reviewers have complained that her use of dialect was heavy handed, but from my perspective, she actually tones down Jamaican Patois also called Jamaican Creole significantly to make it understandable to non Jamaicans On a visit to Jamaica last year, I heard her interviewed and she said she was writing as much for Jamaicans as for a wider audience, and she knew the book wouldn t ring true to us if the characters didn t speak patois much of the time.
I think it s a fascinating look at the first wave of West Indian immigrants to the place they had been taught to think of as the mother country , and the responses they received from white Britons when they arrived I particularly liked the part that was set in the Jamaica of the 1940 s Thought the ending was a little too neat, but it didn t diminish my love of the book.
No man is an island Said John Donne But the reality is, everyone is At least in their minds That is what this novel tells us.
This is the story of four people Hortense Roberts, a teacher Gilbert Joseph, an airman both Jamaicans and the British couple Victoria Queenie Bligh and the bank clerk Bernard Bligh But it also the story of two nations, England and the West Indies, as reflected in the very private lives and thoughts of these people.
Both Hortense and Gilbert want to escape from their Small Island of Jamaica to the Mother country England right, the capital of the British Empire, which they consider themselves proud to be part of Gilbert even things himself entitled, as he has fought for his country in the Second World War, which has just ended Unfortunately for them, the mother does want to have to do anything with these coloured sons and daughters The latent racism of the white man, which was subdued during the war, has come to forefront with a vengeance in the abject poverty of post war England So the Jamaicans find themselves unwelcome visitors on the English shore.
Hortense has married Gilbert, partly because he looks like her childhood crush Michael, and partly to get a passage to England Gilbert has also married Hortense because she has promised to finance his trip abroad but also because he is sexually attracted to her In England, they lodge at the house of Queenie Bligh, whom Gilbert had fancied at one point of time in dismal lodgings to the horror of Hortense The neighbourhood is unhappy at Queenie s taking in of coloured lodgers And the situation is worsened by the return of Bernard Bligh from India, where he had been posted during the war Bernard, colonialist and racist to the core, wants these blacks out of his house something which Queenie refuses to countenance.
And as tensions mount, there is the sudden unexpected denouement which throws the whole story off its wheels The climax, when it comes, is comprised in equal measures of tragic irony and slapstick comedy and then it all winds down to a softly sentimental finale Andrea Levy uses her characters as metaphor The tensions of race and nation are encapsulated in the voices of her four protagonists In this, she resembles Paul Scott But whereas Scott s voice is poignant and multilayered, rather like that of Faulkner, Levy s is extremely blunt There is no sugar coating I found all her protagonists except Queenie rather unlikeable, though one could sympathise with them She has done a brilliant job of creating multiple voices, with totally different ways of expressing themselves At the same time, there is a unity to the narrative.
And the metaphor works, without being intrusive It is what saved this novel from being the tripe it could easily have been especially with the contrived and convoluted narrative.
Mixed feelings about this one read very easily and the historical context is one that interests me However it did not really do what I thought it set out do, which was to chronicle the early years of the Windrush generation There are four narrators Hortense and Gilbert from Jamaica and Queenie and Bernard who are English although Bernard feels like a bit of an add on, arriving in the last quarter of the book That makes the book feel a little disjointed A great deal of time is also spent with the earlier lives of three of the protagonists Too much time, I think for the length of the novel I think Levy is trying to write three novels in one Firstly, life in Jamaica and Britain in the late 1920s and 1930s Secondly, the war and the experiences of West Indian servicemen and interactions with locals and GIs Thirdly, Windrush and beyond That s all too much for one novel to take As a consequence all three areas suffer I also felt that the characters lacked something, which again may be as a result of trying to cram too much in On the whole I prefer David Dabydeen s thoughtful approach to the topic One part that did ring true was the racism in the white community, which I remember from the late 1960s and early 1970s I particularly remember the unthinking and irrational nature of it which Levy portays well This was a source of puzzlement to me as a child as I saw my elders behaving in ways which I thought were rude and inhuman Levy describes the surprise and disappointment of the new arrivals as the encounter post war London.
All in all a bit of a varied mixture which tried to do too much.
I wanted to enjoy this book because I am a West Indian now and did the reverse journey first world UK to backward little Caribbean island, but the journey was a lot enjoyable than the book.
I finished it by an act of will and apart from odd scenes of violence or lasciviousness, it didn t hold my attention It was such an easy read that the pages flowed into each other leaving no trace on my brain at all Like the sea washing the sand clean with each wave, so did each page disappear from my memory as the next one was read Bye Small Island, I ve moved on and forgotten you now I m trying to figure out my reaction to this book, other than the fact that I loved it I have a hard time putting into words my feelings about this book Small Island is the story of four people in the aftermath of WW II Levy is concerned with the experience of immigrants and racial issues in post War London.
I dont think the story could have been told in a shorter span, and it is one of those that you understand why it won the awards that it did I didn t find the dialect annoying or hard to follow Of the four central characters, I found Bernard the hardest to relate to, though this does seem to be Levy s intention She has to capture a certain type, after all, for the book to work I also have to say that while I have never really liked Benedict Cumberpatch in anything I ve seen him, I think he was perfectly cast in the television adaption of this book He really is Bernard to a T.
While all of the three remaining characters are relatable and human, the one that stands out the most is Hortense This is because her voice is so stand alone, so independent, so different, and so nailed Levy doesn t need any description of Hortense, she just needs to let Hortense speak and the reader can see her That s good writing.
The book comments on the immigrant experience of traveling to a new country and realizing reality doesn t match the stories This is combined with various racial conflcits, racism, as well as classism Because of the alternately viewpoints, the reader has a far clearer picture of what is driving each of the characters, than the characters themselves The most interesting part, at least for this reader, was watching the interplay of class and race conflict Hortense is just as bigoted in her way as the English people are racist in thiers.
The story deals with the two set of couples Queenie and Bernard Hortense and Gilbert and highlights the similarities and differences of each Both women marry for something other than love In many ways, the book is also about a married life where neither partner is sure of the other.
And I think that is why I am having trouble naming what is so wonderful about this book There is so much going on in terms of theme If done incorrectly, it would fail, but Levy does it brillantly The book is so balanced that you don t even realize until you put it down what she did The ending is not a happy ending nor a sad one really It is a realstic ending, despite a contrived point concerning it It s realism puts the reader on shakey ground It s an ending that makes you think about everything Levy has been writing about It reminds of a movie I saw on the Sundance Channel called Cass The movie was about a football holigan who was black but raised by a white family when that was not the normal The movie was about than beating up fans of the opposing team This book is something than advertised It brings to light a time that was overshadowed by the time before, and than, importantly, gets the reader to think about everything in the world.
Update I feel that I should point out that I like Mr Cumberpatch in Sherlock as well.
5 Middlebrow fiction as it should be done entertaining, readable but not without substance a book you still look forward to picking up when you re using most of your spare time for things other than reading Levy makes this kind of writing look easy, but there must be a lot of paddling going on under the surface to make the novel glide so smoothly No surprise that this was made into a BBC drama it certainly has that Sunday evening TV feel characters are entirely believeable as personalities, and there s an excellent mixture of the soapy drama, big coincidences and the detail of everyday life in the past, the well trodden and the less so Accessible literary fiction set in the present can easily become dreary, but Small Island spans enough time, and an eventful enough time, that there s always something really happening, not just people staring into space and thinking whilst driving or cooking for pages and pages.
It could be difficult to argue with someone who wanted to call this an issue novel about racism But maybe it depends on background I just didn t see it that way My grandparents came to Britain in the same decade as Gilbert and Hortense Okay, if they walked through an area where no one knew them or their names, they wore clothes that fitted in perfectly and they didn t speak, they would have been able to go about unremarked, unlike the Jamaican immigrants But that wasn t the way most people lived in the forties I still remember hearing about the racist bullying that went on in those days worst between kids and my incredulity that they weren t automatically assumed to be somewhat heroic due to the war As a kid I thought not in terms of colour but simply people who were, like me, partly not from here in a non pejorative sense, and those who were My first school best friend was Indian, and I felt at home with her than with the children who seemed entirely English So although American commentators on race in particular from a culture that has different attitudes to immigration that are closely tied to colour make strong divides between black and white, my gut feeling gives affinity with Gilbert and Hortense Before reading a lot of identity politics material, it never seemed necessary to explicitly and defensively point out the awareness I d always had that people from different countries or ethnic groups will have differing experiences related to that that was just, well, duh On page 525, there is a speech by Gilbert which points out among other things, no better, no worse than me just white which is fantastic as a balanced middle ground between the racists and the contemporary extremes of the internet social justice warrior tendency Surprised that paragraph isn t a GR quote The aggressive racism of America is a significant feature of the book When the story follows Jamaican RAF volunteers during the war, it s white GIs who are violent, threatening and active proponents of segregation the Brits are merely rude on a frequent basis, and , then as now, the UK brand of racism xenophobia is as much about immigration as about colour, with the large numbers of recently arrived Czechs, Poles, Belgians and even Jews despite knowing what they d gone through , as well as the Windrush Jamaicans, being a focus for rants by racist characters Although once West Indian men start in working class jobs in England after the war when they manage to secure a job in the first place some colleagues are almost as unpleasant as the American soldiers Arguably, Queenie s bank clerk husband Bernard is too easy a villain , a prejudiced, conventional man who has few redeeming features other than perhaps punctuality Remember the old geek nerd dork etc distinctions Bernard is a dork or dweeb he has the ineptitude and narrow minded rigidity without better than average skills, and his context and anger means he s not Pooterishly amusing The complex character of Queenie demonstrates that some racism is unthinking and conformity to attitudes a person grew up with a person who could be educated out of it, especially by first hand experience With Bernard it s ingrained and connected to other aspects of his character His narrative was bloody irritating to read and gave me all the sympathy for Queenie she had gone out with him because he was presentable, attentive and seemed like the right sort according to received opinion, and ended up marrying him simply so she didn t have to return to her parents Having been involved with a couple of similar types for short periods when I was younger, as rebound or for other expedient reasons, it made me very grateful that times had changed Small islanders is the Jamaican characters term for people from the smaller West Indian islands yokels and hicks, basically Travelling abroad they come to regard both Jamaica and the fabled imperial Mother Country of GB who turns out to be so uncaring and unwelcoming as small islands too It must be no accident that Small Island and small minded sound similar Stifling old fashioned attitudes are almost everywhere Even Queenie, who s bravely anti racist by the standards of her time and community, has no shortage of assumptions that would be unacceptable now One of the quieter tragedies of the novel is the similarity in personality and opinions between Queenie and Hortense the barriers that exist in everyone s heads make it impossible for the two women even to realise all the ways in which they re alike, let alone become friends as they may have been able to several decades later Small Island is a school text these days, and I think that s a good thing There are plenty of technical and character aspects for essays, plus some history and politics to make it seem worthwhile to kids who aren t interested in further literature study Perhaps it s likely to be used in schools with a good racial mix where it s only preaching to the converted, though some teachers will probably introduce it to areas where kids would benefit from thinking about these topics before they go to university or work Still, it s easy to criticise curricula and say how standards have fallen I would have approved if this was a GCSE rather than an A Level book Almost seventy years ago, on 22nd June 1948, the passenger ship HMTEmpire Windrushsailed into London s Tilbury docks Several of these large troop ships had been acquired at the end of the Second World War by the British government, and all were renamedEmpire , followed by the name of a river in this case a little river in Oxfordshire But the wordWindrushcame to symbolise something far greater It was to give its name to an entire generation of people, all of whom had emigrated from the Caribbean to Great Britain.
In 1948, theBritish Nationality Acthad just been passed This conferred British citizenship on all British subjects connected with the United Kingdom or a British colony TheEmpire Windrushhad been en route from Australia to England via the Atlantic, when it docked in Kingston, Jamaica, to pick up servicemen who were on leave The ship was nowhere near full, and so an advertisement was placed in a Jamaican newspaper offering cheap transport on the ship, for anybody who wanted to come and work in the UK.
It was a popular idea Many former servicemen, who had served alongside British troops in the Second World War, jumped at this opportunity to return to Britain with the hopes of rejoining the RAF Others wanted to see what themother country , heralded as a land of opportunity, was like The resulting group was the first large group of 492 Caribbean immigrants to Britain It famously began a wave of migration from the Caribbean to the UK, and can be thought of as the start of our modern British multicultural society.
The novelist Andrea Levy s father was on that ship, and in her early books she wrote about her contemporaries other children of theWindrush generation , and their efforts to find a way of being both black and British In her fourth novel, Small Island, she has envisioned the struggles of the pioneering Windrush generation itself.
Small Island has won the Orange Prize, the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and the Whitbread Book of the Year Award another of Britain s top literary prizes in 2004 One of the judges remarked that it isa brilliantly observed novel of a period of English history that many people seem not to know much about a masterful depiction of a society on the verge of major changes The novel interweaves the stories of four people, all of whom are affected by the historical context, which involves World War II, the British Empire, and the effect of colonialism on those living in Jamaica.
It begins in 1948, as England is recovering from the war Gilbert Joseph is one of nine children of an alcoholic Jewish father and a Jamaican mother He is also one of several thousand Jamaican men who had joined the RAF, to fight against Hitler, during the Second World war Marrying enables him to buy his passage on the Windrush, and he excitedly books a passage to return But his expectations are sorely dashed Returning to England as a civilian, he finds himself treated very differently London is shabby, decrepit, filled with sour looking people who never smile The food seems to him like flavourless mush This grey place is far from the golden city of his dreams In desperation, he remembers a wartime friendship with Queenie, a butcher s daughter who used to live in the country before she married Gilbert knocks at her door, at 21 Nevern Street, London, hoping she will offer him accommodation.
Queenie Bligh, a working class Englishwoman, remembers Gilbert, and allows him lodging, although it is not what he is used to Queenie s house has been damaged by German bombs and has fallen into disrepair because she cannot afford the upkeep of such a large building The poor conditions and squalid dirty room shocks his new bride, Hortense, who soon joins him Hortense too, had longed to leave Jamaica and start a better life in England She had thought of England as a promised land everyone was happy and rich in England But when she joins her husband she finds a cold and woebegone place, with drabness and filth everywhere People never smile, and seem unkempt and rude, taking no pride in their appearance There is no colour or life Even Gilbert is not the man she had thought he was And she cannot understand Queenie at all.
Hortense is the least sympathetic character She is educated, but very conscious whilst growing up in Jamaica, that her golden skin makes her seem superior She is a village snob, narrow minded, and insecure genuinely ignorant of the world On arriving in England, she has every expectation that it will be an upmarket version of her teacher training college in Jamaica Hortense begins by despising the apparently feckless Gilbert and the circumstances to which he has brought her She looks down her nose at working class Queenie, and firmly rejects the idea that she has anything in common with the other slum dwelling migrants.
But Hortense soon discovers that her precious qualifications are worthless in the British education system, and that her status is precisely the same as that of any other black migrant The revelation almost destroys her self esteem, but it also sets her on a path to self discovery, beginning to understand Gilbert s strength, and Queenie s kindness in this new challenging, unfamiliar world they all inhabit.
Queenie herself has a difficult life, looking after her missing husband s taciturn father, and meeting much opposition from her neighbours, who do not approve when she agrees to take in Jamaican lodgers Queenie recognises the differences between white people and black people, but pays little attention to them In any case, she has little choice about this, as she has been left on her own, not knowing when her husband will return, or if he will come back at all She too has had her dreams dashed To support herself, Queenie must rent out rooms.
Gilbert and Hortense attempt to adjust not only to a new country but to each other The relationships of all three are soon disrupted by the view spoiler unexpected arrival of Queenie s husband, Bernard, whose whereabouts since his discharge from the army, two years earlier, have been a mystery to everyone hide spoiler A well researched, well written book with surprising twists and turns The author manages to show compassion for all the characters and write the story in such a way that this international bestseller speaks toa very wide audience The humor is the the glue which keeps the story riveting and a delight to read despite the hardships and dire circumstances the characters had to endure Hortense Joseph, an immigrant from Jamaica, settles in London in 1948, after leaving her beloved island for a better life a new beginning As a British colony, the island s men went to fight on the British side, only to discover afterwards, when they immigrated to England, that they were actually regarded as second class citizens and unwelcome The Brits did not regard them really as British subjects when they exchanged their colonized island for Mother England Gilbert Joseph, Hortense s husband, an intelligent, kind man, struggles to find lodging and work, but eventually meets Queenie, a white landlady, who s difficult, uncompromising husband Bernard is also still at war She takes them in, but the neighbors are furious Wherever the black people moved in, the whites moved out in no uncertain terms.
Andrea writes in such a way that the reader can almost smell the streets of London, experience the might of exploding bombs, and stand mesmerized by the events as it unfolds.
The saga ends on a surprising note This book deserves the accolades it received Listen to this Podcast interview with the author about this book.