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on 18 January 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. If she puts a foot wrong, it may be in the particular details (can't give it away) of the central coincidence which drives the major 'twist' of the book - the world's not that small an island, surely - but if you already love the book by then, you'll shrug and let it go.
Small Island, then, is an exceptional achievement, an outright, downright, upright, leftright masterpiece. There's something for everyone - the formal artistry of the four voices, the back-and-forward structure, the crossing and recrossing of fates, the heartwrenching losses, the sparky dialogue. I'm just sorry that it's only the 18th of January as I write this because then it sounds like a gag when I say it's the best book I've read all year. But you know what I mean.
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VINE VOICEon 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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on 21 March 2006
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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on 11 June 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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on 8 April 2006
I have not yet finished the book but have been compelled to write this review. Small Island for me has been entertaining as well as educational. As a black briton of Jamaican descent it has served as a historical account of what my grandparents may have experienced on coming to England shortly after the second world war. it also serves as a intimate view of how the British experience of the pre and post war England through an honest and emotive account of their feelings of a new multi cultural England that they had never encountered before.
subconcioulsy it reflects attitudes that both immigrants and inhabitants are still experiencing within England today. I have never read anything that attempts to do this. I simply must read on and I cannot wait for the twist at the end.
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on 10 February 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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on 26 January 2007
Everyone I asked about the book could do nothing but tell me it was `very good'. This got me excited about the prospect of reading `Small Island' as well as worried; could the book really live up to the hype surrounding it or was I going to be disappointed as so many times before when reading a `5-star' book or watching a `must-see' film.

I was far from disappointed. This is a beautiful book!

Small Island is set around WWII, describing the lives of 4 people, who are all affected by the war in different ways.

Hortense, a black Jamaican woman, dreaming of her beloved Britain, unaware that Britain is not ready to embrace her.

Gilbert, also a black Jamaican, trying to provide for his wife and build a new life for himself in London.

Queenie, a white British woman, who paradoxically is liberated by the on-going war. Allowed to be something other than the wife of an utterly boring man. A man, it seems she was never really in love with.

And Bernard, a white British soldier stationed in India, taken away from the comfort of his daily routine.

It was interesting to read how being overtly racist was allowed and accepted within British and American society. It was particularly interesting considering the current controversy surrounding alleged racists remarks, throwing into question whether people have really moved on from the 1940's and 1950's and are more accepting of `difference' now. However, the author does not linger on the victims of racism or give a one-sided account, but instead demonstrates various characters' (black and white) strength to overcome prejudice and fight for acceptance and equality. More than a book about the past, it is a book about human interaction - the good, bad and beautiful.

I enjoyed every page and would say: Believe the hype and read the book.
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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
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on 3 November 2006
Small Island is very cleverly written and takes the reader carefully through the lives of its characters in immediate post war England and how they got there. Andrea Levy pulls no punches when she deals with racism but handles the issue very intelligently. Each character is built so that they become very real sadly though there is not enough about Bernard's early life to complete the picture. This book would a useful addition to any 'A' English Literature reading list. A book that can be read at different levels but as good as any history book for a picture of post war England and much more interesting.
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VINE VOICEon 15 April 2005
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.
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