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Small Island by Andrea Levy
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Small Island (2004)

by Andrea Levy

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3,0661181,852 (3.87)553
  1. 60
    White Teeth by Zadie Smith (SqueakyChu)
    SqueakyChu: Both are novels about multicultutalism which consider Jamaican culture affecting England.
  2. 50
    The Other Hand by Chris Cleave (whymaggiemay)
  3. 40
    Brick Lane by Monica Ali (whymaggiemay)
    whymaggiemay: Both these excellent novels examine the issues of immigration and assimilation in England, though the cultures and backgrounds are different.
  4. 20
    The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (kathrynnd)
  5. 10
    Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (tcarter)
  6. 00
    The Same Earth by Kei Miller (alalba)
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Showing 1-5 of 120 (next | show all)
It is 1948, and Hortense has moved from Jamaica to England to live with her husband Gilbert. We see her disappointment as she moves into a grotty room in Earl's Court which Gilbert rents from Londoner Queenie. We gradually realise Hortense is quite stuck up and is obviously very unhappy with where she finds herself We then hear her back story before we go once again to 1948.
The story that develops in the "present" is fascinating as we know that there is a lot left unsaid and all the characters are really interesting. We go on to hear back stories of Gilbert and Queenie, and Queenie's stiff husband Bernard. We learn a lot about the characters in this way - much of which the other characters don't know themselves.
There are lots of interesting scenes in the book and it is interesting to see Hortense's defences start to fall as she realises the racism inherent in 1940s London. It is also interesting the the black woman isn't the heroine of the tale, and in some ways the male characters - particularly Gilbert - come across more strongly.
I really loved this book and found the ending - where Queenie gives birth to a mixed race baby that she gives to Gilbert and Hortense to bring up as their own - very moving. Even the twist (that the baby's father was Michael, the son of Hortense's cousin with whom she was in love) was managed well so it didn't seem like too much of an unlikely coincidence. ( )
  AHouseOfBooks | Jan 27, 2016 |
Gorgeous book. ( )
  olduvai | Jan 19, 2016 |
Set against the backdrop of World War 2 and its immediate aftermath, this is a story with universal appeal. Two couples – the Jamaicans Hortense and Gilbert Joseph and the British Queenie and Bernard Bligh – find their way in circumstances neither ever considered. They share a desire to better themselves, but fail to recognize their common goals and instead focus on their differences. Queenie grabbed at a chance to leave her life on a farm and hastily married a boring banker, but her husband never returned from the war and now she is alone and friendless in a house that she cannot maintain. Hortense, schooled in proper manners and with expectations of refined living, is shocked at the sordidness of the post-war London home in which she and Gilbert are lodgers, and at the hostility that many Britons display to these immigrants. The sudden return of Bernard Bligh will spark the turn of events leading to the climax.

Levy has written a gem of a novel that explores every human emotion, but ends with a feeling of hope. The dialogue is wonderful, including just enough colloquial expression to really bring the characters to life. I felt for these wounded people and celebrated their triumphs, however small. The four central characters take turns narrating, giving us insight into their expectations, strengths and failings. Levy also has the action alternate between Jamaica and England; the novel also goes back and forth in time, building suspense and leading to an ending that is as inevitable as it is unexpected.
( )
  BookConcierge | Jan 13, 2016 |
Small island is a rather conventional sort of historical novel, with a straightforward linear narrative in which the four main characters take turns to tell the story. Gilbert is a young Jamaican man who has served in the RAF during the war and returns to settle in England in 1948; Bernard is an English RAF veteran of about the same age; Hortense and Queenie are their respective wives. The central idea of the book is the startling difference between colonial and metropolitan views of Englishness: the Jamaicans have grown up in a cultural tradition and an education system designed to make them proud of their status as citizens of the Empire and subjects of the King, and to look to Britain as the source of history, literature and everything else that matters in their lives. They are shocked and puzzled when they come to England and find that most people have no notion that the West Indies even exist, and cannot imagine that there might be black people who think of themselves as British, and even less that those black people might have skills and training that equip them to do anything more than the humblest of jobs. Levy develops that idea nicely enough, and she puts in a lot of very nice, mostly accurate or at least plausible, period detail. What there is is definitely very good, but from the clutch of big awards this book has won I was rather expecting to get something that goes a little deeper than giving the generation of fifty years ago a mild rap on the knuckles for being credulous optimists/small-minded bigots. ( )
1 vote thorold | Jan 2, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 120 (next | show all)
Levy's greatest achievement in ''Small Island'' is to convey how English racism was all the more heartbreaking for its colonial victims because it involved the crushing of their ideals. Gilbert is astonished to discover that although he can reel off the names of England's canals and list the major industries of each English town, most English people can't even find Jamaica on a map. ''How come England did not know me?'' he asks. Hortense's training as a teacher counts for nothing in England, and while she may have won a prize for reciting Keats's ''Ode to a Nightingale'' at school, she can't make herself understood by a London taxi driver.

Levy understands the complex relationship between color and class. Light-skinned Hortense has been brought up as a lady, and she initially despises Gilbert for his coarser manners. She also looks down on Queenie for being less educated than she is. The slow development of Hortense's respect for her husband as she begins to understand the challenges he faces (many of which she will confront herself) is one of the most moving aspects of the book. ''Small Island'' is too thoughtful a novel to promise its characters a happy ending, but it is generous enough to offer them hope.
added by kidzdoc | editNew York Times, Fatema Ahmed (Apr 3, 2005)
 
Small Island operates on a larger canvas than Levy's previous novels. Set in India, England and Jamaica, it is as far-reaching a work as White Teeth. Yet it is written in a plain, homely style, one that is keen for us to attend to the subtle shifts and twists that its characters undergo. Levy undercuts any assumption that race alone defines them, and is keen to highlight those symmetries and parallels in their life experiences. One can easily see it being turned into a popular drama. It's neither splashy nor experimental, but for thoughtfulness and wry humour cannot be faulted.
added by kidzdoc | editTelegraph, Sukhdev Sandhu (Feb 24, 2004)
 
Apart from everything else, Small Island is a great read, delivering the sort of pleasure which has been the traditional stock-in-trade of a long line of English novelists. It's honest, skillful, thoughtful and important. This is Andrea Levy's big book.
added by kidzdoc | editGuardian, Mike Phillips (Feb 14, 2004)
 
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Epigraph
Never in the field of human conflicts has so much been owed by so many to so few - Winston Churchill
Dedication
For Bill
First words
I thought I’d been to Africa.
Quotations
If a body in its beauty is the work of God then this hideous predicament between his legs was without doubt the work of the devil.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0312424671, Paperback)

Andrea Levy's award-winning novel, Small Island, deftly brings two bleak families into crisp focus. First a Jamaican family, including the well-intentioned Gilbert, who can never manage to say or do exactly the right thing; Romeo Michael, who leaves a wake of women in his path; and finally, Hortense, whose primness belies her huge ambition to become English in every way possible. The other unhappy family is English, starting with Queenie, who escapes the drudgery of being a butcher's daughter only to marry a dull banker. As the chapters reverse chronology and the two groups collide and finally mesh, the book unfolds through time like a photo album, and Levy captures the struggle between class, race, and sex with a humor and tenderness that is both authentic and bracing. The book is cinematic in the best way--lighting up London's bombed-out houses and wartime existence with clarity and verve while never losing her character's voice or story. --Meg Halverson

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:08 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Returning to England after the war Gilbert Joseph is treated very differently now that he is no longer in an RAF uniform. Joined by his wife Hortense, he rekindles a friendship with Queenie who takes in Jamaican lodgers. Can their dreams of a better life in England overcome the prejudice they face?… (more)

» see all 4 descriptions

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