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Small Island by Andrea Levy

Small Island (2004)

by Andrea Levy

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2,9041091,985 (3.88)474
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  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 107 (next | show all)
Set in London just after the end of WWII and told via multiple narrators, the novel explores issues of race, sex and social class by focusing on two couples. Hortense and Gilbert Joseph, both blacks originally from Jamaica and newly landed in the UK have a marriage of convenience, with Hortense having funded their relocation to the country they both dearly want to call home. Hortense is an incredible snob who considers herself thoroughly English and is sure that she will land a teaching job in the UK at one of the best schools. Gilbert on the other hand has had plenty of experience to show him that coloured people are far from welcome on that Island and are likely to be met with hatred and unbelievable hostility. They move into a rooming house kept by Queenie Bligh, whose husband Bernard has disappeared while away on duty in India. Queenie, originally a butcher's daughter living in the country, escaped to London and the promise of a good life because of her good looks and refined tastes, and an aunt willing to take her under her wing. But her marriage to Bernard has turned out to be far from satisfactory and her dalliances with a black Jamaican RAF man will impact all their lives. None of the characters was likeable, but their stories were interesting and their point of view made perfectly understandable when they were able to tell their own stories. A great novel which is also maddening to read for the racism that is described in its pages. ( )
  Smiler69 | May 26, 2014 |
Small Island has an intriguing subject - Jamaica as a colony of the UK, World War II, and Jamaican immigration to the England after the war. The subject matter is what kept me going through the book, even though the characters didn't capture my imagination. The story is told from multiple viewpoints, and I think this might have been the weakness for me, although I can understand why the author chose to do it that way. We start off with Queenie, a white British woman whose significance we won't learn right away. Then to Hortense, a Jamaican woman who dreams of emigrating to the UK and becoming a teacher there. Next is Gilbert, a Jamaican man who has signed up for the RAF, fought in the war, and is now trying to make his way in England. Then back to Queenie, who we now know is the landlady where Gilbert is living in London. Individually, their stories are each worthy of attention, but I feel like I probably would have rather read a book that centered on the viewpoints of Hortense and Gilbert without Queenie's interference. And by the time Queenie's husband Bernard stepped up to tell his part of the story, I viewed him mostly as an annoying distraction. Again, though, his story is compelling on its own; I just didn't want to read it right then or in this particular book.

The title refers to an attitude - small island people are the ones Jamaicans look down on as having a small view of the world, based on that world (their islands) only extending a few miles in either direction. The lessons and experiences in the book show that we're all pretty much small islanders, though, unable to see much farther than our own limited world of experience. While I liked the perspective on that idea, and the unique situations used to show it, I guess I'd have to sum the book up as an interesting story clumsily told.

Recommended for: people who like the House of Mirrors, those interested in race relations

Quote: "If the defeat of hatred is the purpose of war, then come, let us face it: I and all other coloured servicemen were fighting this war on another front." ( )
  ursula | May 3, 2014 |
I read this book when it first came out and just reread it with my Seminar in Historical Fiction students. I'm really happy that I chose it to close out the course.

Levy tells her tale through as somewhat complex structure. She uses four narrators: Queenie, a white working class British woman; Bernard, her ultraconservative husband; Gilbert, a Jamaican who served in the RAF during World War II; and Hortense, Gilbert's wife, a proud woman who believes her education will get her anywhere. Added to this, Levy gives us two timeframes, 1948 (present day) and "Before," which ranges from 1924 to 1948. In addition, the characters move among many locations, including London, Jamaica, Hertfordshire, India, France, and Brighton. If this sounds confusing, well, surprisingly, it isn't.

All of these characters live on dreams--hopes to better their lives. In the prologue, a seven year-old Queenie visits the 1924 British Exhibition in Wembley and leaves convinced that she has been "in Africa." Queenie dreams of escaping her father's pig farm, of becoming a lady, of living a more comfortable life in London, of motherhood. But as it happens, the road to that dream takes her to marriage with a "solid" but dispassionate man--Bernard, a bank clerk. Hortense is convinced from an early age that she will go to England and live in a big house with doorbell that goes ding-a-ling--and that she will marry her handsome playboy cousin, Michael Roberts. All his life, Gilbert Joseph has been told that Jamaicans are British subjects, and he believes that if he can just get to England, opportunities will open wide. What better way than to fight for the Mother Country? And Bernard--poor Bernard. He doesn't really know how to dream, so his dream is the dream of the British Empire: British superiority, a stiff upper lip, living your life as others think you should. For him, the war is becomes a real game-changer.

The characters' lives become complicated and intertwined when Gilbert and Hortense marry, emigrate to England with high expectations (Gilbert first, Hortense several months later) and rent a room in Queenie's house. In time, they learn a lot about the way of the world--particularly the English world--and even more about themselves.

I don't want to give up any more particulars of plot, so let me just say that this is a lovely book, finely written and imagined, with more than one meaningful message for us all. ( )
1 vote Cariola | May 2, 2014 |
Firstly, I must say that I listened to this and the narrator was simply fabulous. She had all of the accent down really well, even the shades of difference between Aunt Dorothy & Queenie, or that between Hortense & Gilbert. Just really very very convincing and, I suspect, not an easy trick to pull off.
This is set during WW2 and in the years immediately after, with the bulk of the story being set in 1948. The Empire Windrush arrives in London, bringing with it Gilbert, a Jamaican man who has served in the RAF and is now looking to make his future in England. He ends up lodging with Queenie Bly, who has a house in Earl's Court and a husband who hasn't yet made it back from the war. It is told in their voices, and those of their respective partners, Hortense & Bernard. Tlod with some elements of flash back, you find out that they have a complicated relationship and that life hasn't been plain sailing for any of them. At times this is brilliantly funny, at others it is really difficult to listen to. Partly that is the attitudes reflected in the book. I accept that they are highly likely to be representative of their time, but the scene in the cinema had my blood boiling. All I can say is that I think (and I hope) that as a nation we've moved on a lot since this book was set. but it isn't just the racism, there is the insufferable sexism that both Queenie & Hortense are subject to, but with much less outrage on anyone's part. As I said, I would hope that we can take comfort in the fact that we have moved on from this.
I thought this was really very well written. The different voices telling their tales, at times the same incident from more that one perspective. And the back story fills in as the book progresses. This kept me listening, and waning to know what happened next, right to the end. And I'm still wondering where their lives lead from the last page - where are they all now? ( )
  Helenliz | May 1, 2014 |
Good book, set back in wartime England, prejudice, ( )
  mcorbink | Oct 14, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 107 (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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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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:00:01 -0400)

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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)

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