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Small Island by Andrea Levy
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Small Island (original 2004; edition 2004)

by Andrea Levy

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2,9111121,982 (3.88)476
Member:rosasaks
Title:Small Island
Authors:Andrea Levy
Info:Headline Paperbacks (2004), Paperback, 560 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:*****
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Work details

Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004)

  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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English (111)  German (1)  Dutch (1)  All languages (113)
Showing 1-5 of 111 (next | show all)
Written in first person POV, with the narration alternating between the four main characters, the author did a wonderful job of giving each character a distinctive voice and personality, drawing us into his or her story completely.

Gilbert joins the West Indian RAF, eager to defend the Mother Country, which he loves without reservation. He gets a brief trip to America, which he is eager to see. He's impressed with the vast abundance of food available to the military there, but puzzled by how he and his fellow Jamaican citizens are treated differently, better, than the black people in America. Once in his beloved Mother Country, he is astounded to realize that its residents know nothing about Jamaica.

After the war is over, Gilbert and Hortense marry in Jamaica, and he travels back to England to look for work and find a place to live, sending for Hortense to join him six months later. She arrives expecting to be immersed in culture and class, and live in a nice house with a fancy doorbell. She is not expecting a single dirty room in an old house with a nosy white landlady who goes to market dressed in what appear to be her bedclothes. Hortense was a teacher in Jamaica, and expects to teach in England as well, but those hopes are quickly dashed. She and Gilbert didn't marry Gilbert for love, but for the chance to immigrate. The sections of story narrated by Gilbert and Hortense were my favorite. They are both fascinating and appealing characters, motivated by a desire for a better life in a country they've been brought up to love and respect, but which looks down on them because of the color of their skin.

Except for people like Queenie. When the war ended, her husband did not return, and she began renting out rooms in their home to support herself. Despite the disapproval and disdain of her neighbors, she gladly rents rooms to not only Gilbert and Hortense, but to another Jamaican immigrant as well. Queenie's and Bernard's sections of narration were still engrossing, but I didn't feel quite as embedded or invested in their lives as with Gilbert and Hortense.

The author's writing is very evocative, with just the right amount of humor and lightness thrown in among the serious topics.

Racism is the prevalent theme, treated with both dignity and matter of factness, a way of life that each character reacted to differently. Bernard is the least visible character, and the least likable, though in the end he shows unexpected compassion and strength. When the end of the book came, I was left wanting more, having questions that still needed answers. A secret was revealed, which provided a link between two characters that was not resolved to my satisfaction. But that's a part of life, right?

A beautifully written and thought provoking look at a country and it's people torn apart by and then putting themselves back together after a war. Read it.
  octoberwoman | Jul 20, 2014 |
Read during Winter 2004/2005

Not out in the US yet, I'm reading a copy from my book group UK pal. It took about 2 pages to get into it but I never expected all the different bits of the story to connect up in the way they finally did. It is told in both different character voices and in both the past and 'present' (1948) which can get confusing, even though she carefully heads the chapters with the characters names. I just found it hard to mentally shift in the midst of scene from one characters head to another. It was fascinating, though, much more a study of the racism in Britain than I expected. At first, it seemed to be about the colony/empire clash. Perhaps it still was, at the end.
  amyem58 | Jul 14, 2014 |
This fantastic book was winner of the Orange Prize in 2004. It is the story of two newly married Jamaican immigrants in England just after WWII and the white woman they rent a room from. I don't really want to describe the plot or characters much because Levy does it so beautifully. I will say that the portrayal of the immigrant experience, and the black immigrant experience at that, is done really well. I loved how she wrote their words in clear English as they were thinking them and made it clear how different it sounded by making others not understand. Also the characters are connected in ways they don't realize and I loved that Levy revealed this to the reader, but not to the characters. Levy also explores the war experience through both the black and white characters and especially how they are treated after service.

This book is an enjoyable read that has some important themes to share. I highly recommend it. ( )
  japaul22 | Jul 8, 2014 |
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 |
Showing 1-5 of 111 (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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:00:01 -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)

(summary from another edition)

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