on 26 January 2006
An absolutely brilliant read.
I don't quite know how to put it ...
The characters are all brilliantly individual, locked into their own ideals and values.
It made me ask myself questions: Would I have been friends with this person? Would I have done what this character did under the circumstances? What choices would I have made that were different? How can someone say that?!
Bascially, it got me involved! Days after and it still creeps into my thoughts - any book that does that I find fantastic! And the tone with which is written - direct and witty - makes it a very engaging read.
The subjects tackled were in a mix that I have not encountered before in fiction - so for me it was a unique, refreshing and absorbing read.
Winner of the Whitbread Prize for Best Novel, the Orange Prize, and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, Small Island may soon find deserved success in the US, too. Set in London in 1948, it focuses on the diaspora of Jamaicans, who, escaping economic hardship on their own "small island," move to England, the Mother Country, for which the men have fought during World War II. Their reception is not the warm embrace they have hoped for, nor are the opportunities for success as plentiful as they have dreamed.
Four characters alternate points of view, telling their stories with an honesty and vibrancy that make the tragicomedy of their lives both realistic and emotionally involving. Queenie Bligh, a white woman with a mentally ill father-in-law, takes in boarders when her husband Bernard does not return from war in India. Most of her boarders are black immigrants from the Caribbean, desperate men and women willing to pay high prices for small rooms. Gilbert Joseph, a Jamaican who participated in the Battle of Britain, is one of Queenie's tenants, working as a truck driver, the only job available to him. Gilbert's bride Hortense arrives from Jamaica with her heavy trunk a few months later, ready to show London her superior "British" manners. When Queenie's husband Bernard unexpectedly returns shortly thereafter, life at Queenie's changes forever.
These four characters, through their often touching first-person narratives, convey their hopes and dreams for the future, revealing, as their stories intersect, their personalities, family backgrounds, experiences in love, commitments to the Mother Country, economic predicaments, and, not incidentally, their prejudices.
Levy imbues this novel with fine detail, both in her descriptions of the physical surroundings and in the emotional subtleties with which her characters react to their postwar lives. Her ear for dialogue is exquisite, both in the everyday speech of Londoners and in the dialect and sentence patterns of Jamaicans. Casual, conversational tones bring the characters to life, while Gilbert's recognition of "the way things are" keeps the novel from becoming polemical or strident, despite its thematic emphasis on prejudice and injustice. Levy's touch is light, often humorous, and her scenes of amusing irony are nicely balanced by scenes of high drama.
The author's tendency to tie her male characters to real, historical events--the Hindu/Muslim riots in Calcutta (experienced by Bernard) and a race-based riot at a London movie theater (experienced by Gilbert)--and her reliance on extreme coincidence to conclude the action, do occasionally feel intrusive and manipulative, but this is a minor quibble. This hugely conceived novel has everything going for it--well-drawn characters, vivid descriptions of an unusual time in postwar London, important themes which are not beaten to death, and lively action and interactions which keep the reader constantly involved. Mary Whipple
Engrossing tale of two couples and the way their lives interweave. It's 1948 and Hortense and Gilbert have recently arrived from Jamaica- he as an airman in the war, she to join him afterwards. Meanwhile in England we follow the unsatisfactory marriage of Queenie and Bernard, till he is sent to serve in India...
As a white Brit, I found the account of the life endured by the first West Indian immigrants educational if shocking. It was the endlessness of the racism they faced that was so awful.
As Gilbert writes 'I yearned for home as a drunk man for whisky. For only there could I be sure that someone looking on my face for the first time would regard it without reaction. No gapes, no gawps, no cussing, no looking quickly away as if seeing something unsavoury...what a forlorn desire to seek indifference.'
The book is narrated in part by each of the four characters, looking back on their pasts and writing of their present.
Really enjoyable book, keeps you reading to the end to see if the secret will come out...
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. When each considers their lives back in Jamaica, it seems that there was more opportunity for them there than in post war Britain, especially when they were denied the education and other advantages that demobbed men were given.
On the whole though, I found this book to be moving and sensitive and certainly something that makes you think about the Britain we were and what we became.
A super read. If this book is an accurate telling of attitudes at the time it is shocking.
Switching between the central characters, this is a very well written and touching story of the experience of immigrants from the West Indies.
I really felt that I knew the people involved and the interlacing of their stories worked well. A little too keen to depict pretty well all white people as racist, the book lost a tiny bit of credibility and balance in its keenness to paint the British so. I grew up in the late 1940s and sensed a general uncertainty and concern about the new arrivals in the country but very rarely anything as confrontational as shown here.
I suppose that the author is entitled to that sort of license and overall this book was a great piece of storytelling.
It prompts me to read some more of Andrea Levy's work as she is obviously a skilled writer and it intrigues me to see if she is able to write more constructively about white characters in her other work.
on 22 August 2006
If reading is an escape into another world - one that you can wholly inhabit with all its sights, sounds, tastes, hopes and disappointments - then this is it. So many other books fail to take you there, but this one gets right under your skin. Some others here have complained about clumsy wording; it seems obvious to me that the author has chosen every word with extreme care, and any clumsiness is a deliberate evokation of a mood or a character trait or a train of thought. This class of book is hard to come by these days.
on 27 March 2006
This excellent story tells of the arrival of a Jamaican couple in London soon after the end of the War, and how their lives converge with those of an English couple with whom they take lodgings. These four central characters take turns to tell us about their lives, and how they come to be who and where they are. The little tales that make up a life are told with humour and sensitivity, and make up the richness and fabric of the novel.
The book juxtaposes the secret war that Bernard fights against native insurgents in India, with the loyalty to the "Mother Country" shown by the Jamaicans. While the Jamaicans think of themselves as "Small Islanders" (coming from an outlying island), it is the English who live on a small island. In the end, though, the charcters find common ground in shared human values as their lives reach a dramatic confluence.
At times the story flows a little unevenly, and the structure could be better balanced. This is more than compensated for by the quality of the narrative and the convincing idiom and historical setting. With a lack of overt sentiment, the characters are restrained and reserved in a manner befitting the times. The understated way in which the drama is presented serves to heighten its emotional impact. This is a tale that is interesting to read, and poses important questions about the nature of empire and race, nationality and nationhood, without preaching. A very satisfying novel. Recommended.
on 10 May 2015
Small island was a great read. It gave an insight into the world war 2 era from different people's perspective and the racial tensions that existed.
I loved the way Andrea Levy allowed the reader to get to know and understand the characters. And how she intertwined their lives in the story. The plot kept me turning the pages.
For me, the story also highlighted the support the common wealth countries provided during the war. Especially what people from the Caribbean contributed, and the little tanks or recognition that they get even today.
Overall, this was a great read and I would reccomend it.