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Small Island [Paperback]

Andrea Levy
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (187 customer reviews)

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Book Description

17 Sep 2009

Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction, as well as many other awards, Andrea Levy's SMALL ISLAND is a delicately wrought and profoundly moving novel of empire, prejudice, war and love. It has now been adapted into a major BBC TV drama.

It is 1948, and England is recovering from a war. But at 21 Nevern Street, London, the conflict has only just begun. Queenie Bligh's neighbours do not approve when she agrees to take in Jamaican lodgers, but Queenie doesn't know when her husband will return, or if he will come back at all. What else can she do? Gilbert Joseph was one of the several thousand Jamaican men who joined the RAF to fight against Hitler. Returning to England as a civilian he finds himself treated very differently. It's desperation that makes him remember a wartime friendship with Queenie and knock at her door. Gilbert's wife Hortense, too, had longed to leave Jamaica and start a better life in England. But when she joins him she is shocked to find London shabby, decrepit, and far from the golden city of her dreams. Even Gilbert is not the man she thought he was...

Product details

  • Paperback: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Headline Review; Reprint edition (17 Sep 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0755355954
  • ISBN-13: 978-0755355952
  • Product Dimensions: 19.8 x 13.2 x 4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (187 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 234,781 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Andrea Levy was born in England to Jamaican parents who came to Britain in 1948. She has lived all her life in London. After attending writing workshops when she was in her mid-thirties, Levy began to write the novels that she, as a young woman, had always wanted to read - entertaining novels that reflect the experiences of black Britons, which look closely and perceptively at Britain and its changing population and at the intimacies that bind British history with that of the Caribbean. She has written four previous novels, Every Light in the House Burnin', Never Far From Nowhere, Fruit of the Lemon and Small Island. She has been a judge for the Orange Prize for Fiction, Orange Futures and the Saga Prize, and has been a recipient of an Arts Council Award.
Her second novel, Never Far From Nowhere, was long listed for the Orange Prize, and her most recent novel, Small Island, won the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Orange Prize for Fiction: Best of the Best, the Whitbread Novel Award, the Whitbread Book of the Year Award and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. It has now been adapted into a major BBC TV drama.

Product Description


Every scene is rich in implication, entrancing and disturbing at the same time; the literary equivalent of a switch-back ride (The Sunday Times)

What makes Levy's writing so appealing is her even-handedness. All her characters can be weak, hopeless, brave, good, bad - whatever their colour. The writing is rigorous and the bittersweet ending, with its unexpected twist, touching... People can retain great dignity, however small their island (Independent on Sunday)

'A cracking good read' (Margaret Forster)

'A great read...honest, skilful, thoughtful and important' (Guardian)

'Explores the Caribbean experience of immigration to Britain with great sensitivity' (Independent)

'Wonderful...seamless...a magnificent achievement' (Linda Grant)

'Never less than finely written, delicately and often comically observed, and impressively rich in detail and little nuggets of stories' (Evening Standard)

'An engrossing read - slyly funny, passionately angry and wholly involving' (Daily Mail)

'A work of great imaginative power' (Linton Kwesi Johnson)

'As full of warmth and jokes and humanity as you could wish' (Time Out)

'Gives us a new urgent take on our past' (Vogue)

Book Description

In this delicately wrought and profoundly moving novel, Andrea Levy handles the weighty themes of empire, prejudice, war and love, with a lightness of touch and a generosity of spirit that challenges and uplifts the reader. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
143 of 151 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Small Shall Have Prizes 18 Jan 2005
Andrea Levy's novel (her fourth, and how ashamed do I feel now for never having heard of her before?) has already won the Orange Prize and the Whitbread Novel award, and is now favourite on the shortlist for the overall Whitbread Book of the Year. It deserves them all. (And this is a message, too: the Whitbread is now the award to watch. Didn't it daringly give ostensibly a children's book the Book of the Year award in 2001 for Pullman's exceptional The Amber Spyglass? In the Booker this year, Small Island didn't even make the longlist.)
The 'today' of the novel is 1948, when Queenie Bligh has given up waiting for her husband Bernard to come back from his service in the Second World War, and to make ends meet has let rooms in her house out to immigrants from Jamaica, among them Gilbert Joseph and his wife Hortense. And that is Small Island in a sentence. But it takes us back through the four main characters' lives before and during the war, each speaking to us in their own voice. The ventriloquism is elegant and brilliantly managed, making us sympathetic to all the characters in turn, and gripped by their flowingly told stories; so much so that when they come into conflict at the end of the novel, we are as torn as they are, and don't know which way to turn.
There is tragedy and comedy everywhere in Small Island, and Levy seems incapable of misjudging the tone, whether she wants to depict casual racism, tender young friendship, cold middle-class romance, or the numb relentlessness of twentieth century warfare. The writing is frequently beautiful, and she has a way of approaching a new scene sidelong, rather than head-on, that brings the reader into it with freshness and curiosity. Minor characters come alive.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Very Small Island 21 Mar 2006
By A Customer
The author brilliantly tells this wartime tale of a Jamaican airman who returns to post war England with his young wife to find a less than welcoming populace awaiting them.The "small island" of the title is the derisory name Jamaicans give to the smaller sattelite islands whose populace have less than worldly ways.
The airman and his wife come to regard themselves,in turn,as small islanders lost in the strange,cold London of the 1940's.However, the reader soon finds the true "small island" to be a Britain given to insular attitudes and racial ignorance.
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39 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent book on many levels. 10 July 2006
This book is well deserving of its accolades; Whitbread Book of the Year and the Orange Prize for fiction. It covers the period at the end of the Second World War, when men from the Commonwealth who'd fought on Britain's side emigrated to the "Mother Land", expecting a very different welcome.

The story is related by the four main characters. Two are from Jamaica, Hortense and Gilbert; more British than the British, they leave their homeland where they are respected members of a community, to seek their golden future. Gilbert hopes to train as a lawyer but finds prejudice against him and has to settle for a job driving a Royal Mail van. Hortense finds similar prejudice when she applies for a teaching job. With her impeccable manners and dress sense, she is horrified by the coarse way of life in her new home.

They take lodgings with Queenie, a great character, who is letting out rooms to make ends meet while her husband, Bernard, is fighting in India. It is assumed that he will not return, so when he suddenly reappears, the comfortable balance within the house is tipped. He demands that these 'coloureds' leave immediately.

There are a number of themes covered by the book, but the one that stuck with me was the problem encountered by men who had risked their lives to fight against Hitler and deserved recognition, but instead were treated with contempt when they arrived on British shores as civilians. Also that there were people, like Queenie, who ignored what other people thought and befriended these outcasts.

Highly recommended.
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34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars RAF Blues 11 Jun 2004
I read this book in two days, I thought a was reading the autobiography of my parents, except they came from Guyana. I arrived in England with my mother to Ladbroke Grove, via Liverpool in 1958. This book is accurate,poignant and painful I struggled to read past page 272, I could have written it myself. It is lyrical, humourous, sad, educative and evocative. I didn't want it to end. It deserves the Orange fiction prize well done Andrea.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Small Island - Big Novel 10 Feb 2007
This is the best novel I've read for some time. It manages to be entertaining, funny, serious and thought-provoking all at the same time. Some big issues are handled in a gentle and sensitive way. I thought the depiction of England during the war years was particularly vivid. I did prefer the chapters in first-person by the Jamaican characters (Hortense and Gilbert), but only because the insight and dialogue was often sharper and more colourful than that of their English counterparts (Queenie and Bernard). Some of Gilbert's quips are laugh-out-loud funny. It's a very easy book to read, and difficult to put down. I liked it a lot.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Absorbing and moving 13 Jun 2007
By I Read, Therefore I Blog VINE VOICE
Narrated in the first person by each of Hortense, Gilbert, Queenie and Bernard, this is a very human look at people who want to take the opportunity thrown up by the war and make a new and better life for themselves. There's a lot of humour in the book but at the same time, the portrayal of prejudice in England at the time is very painful to read on the page, particularly when that prejudice is exhibited in such a casual manner.

There are only a couple of criticisms that I have to make.

Firstly, I think that Hortense comes across as such an unsympathetic character for much of the book that even when she finally meets the humiliation the reader is quietly wishing for, it's still a little difficult to believe in the move that she makes towards changing her personality. This is particularly in respect of her marriage to Gilbert, which you are led to believe all along as having been nothing more than a marriage of convenience on her part.

Secondly, there are aspects of Bernard's story that never quite ring true - particularly the fact that he doesn't come home straight away. Whilst I could believe that someone of his character would be ignorant of sexual diseases, his refusal to see a doctor seems at odds with his somewhat fastidious nature and smacks of Levy looking for a deliberate reason for him to stay away for 2 years.

Thirdly, given the racism that they face on a daily basis, I never really felt that I knew what Gilbert and Hortense were staying for - whether they believed that attitudes might change or whether they figured they could make a go of things regardless.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Wow
Whether or not you have read any of her work, this is fantastic. A real page turner.
If you have read this an enjoyed it I would recommend The Long Song (nominated for the... Read more
Published 11 days ago by JULIE BARTON
4.0 out of 5 stars history lesson
I wanted the book to continue. I recommend this to anyone who is British. We need to realise what our grandparents had to go through
Published 1 month ago by janet gordon
4.0 out of 5 stars Small island
Liked a chapters for each person for in the past and then updated, could relate to the era the book was written.
Published 1 month ago by Maureen A Broughton
5.0 out of 5 stars A book for everybody
I recommend this book for anyone interested I the aftermath of WW2. It tells of the difficulties for black people, who had fought on our side in the war, but were not welcomed into... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Sophistakat
2.0 out of 5 stars Weirdly cold
I just could not get in touch with the souls in this book. The theme is very interesting, I appreciate that the characters while being black and white are not at all "black and... Read more
Published 1 month ago by katy & eric
3.0 out of 5 stars Beth
I am reading this book at present.

Will give a better review when I have finished the book.

Finding it a bit heavy going.
Published 2 months ago by Beth
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent
It touched me more than I ever thought it would. I am so glad to be studying this novel for my English Lit as level
Published 2 months ago by Miss D Burkitt
3.0 out of 5 stars great
A novel, 'They don't want us here' by Kevin Watson; is set in modern based on a true story of modern day lynching, arson attempt along with racial abuse and harassment. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Diamonds67
5.0 out of 5 stars A real eye opener
This is, quite simply, one of the best books I have ever read. It took my breath away with the descriptions of real, breathing people whom I could recognise, the events of their... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Sue Scott
5.0 out of 5 stars Great story
I enjoyed this book immensely from beginning to the very emotional ending. The book showed how difficult life was after the war for all races.
Published 3 months ago by Kenbutt
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