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"How come England did not know me?",
This review is from: Small Island (Hardcover)
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